Ground Report | New Delhi: In February of this year, the Government of India issued the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 to regulate the giant social media intermediaries and online news portals.
The rules were drafted under the Information Technology Act of 2000 and will supersede the 2011 standards for internet intermediaries. The social media intermediaries/platforms were required to follow a much stricter set of guidelines within three months, which ended on May 25.
On May 26, the government sent a new notice to all social media intermediaries, requesting information on the state of compliance with the new rules that took effect on that date. The Union ministry asked that digital news publishers provide information such as the URL of their website, mobile applications, social media accounts, information about their news editors, the company’s identification number and other details, contact information, and details about their grievance redressal mechanism in the notice.
According to the new IT Rules, the due diligence required of intermediaries and online publishers, as well as the grievance redressal process, will be overseen by MEITY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology). The rules establish an ethics code for OTT and online news platforms, which will be enforced by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
How these new rules will regulate online news portal?
Earlier the intermediary rules did not cover the OTT or digital news media, however, now, all of them are subject to the rules if they have a physical presence in India. The MIB oversees even the code of conduct for all the news publishers. However, it is yet unclear how Indian authorities intend to govern foreign news media organisations.
Every news and current affairs publication is required to follow a strict grievance redressal system and join a self-regulatory mechanism under the guidelines. They must select a grievance redressal officer who must react to a grievance within 15 days and make a decision.
If a complainant is unhappy with the way their complaint was handled, they can take it to an SRO (Self Regulatory Organisation) or a government-appointed Inter-Departmental Committee. The committee, which is chaired by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B), has the authority to take action against publishers who publish or transmit news and current affairs information.
An entity involved in digital news media must adhere to the Press Council of India’s “Norms of Journalistic Conduct and Programme Code” and ensure that content that is illegal under any law is not published or transmitted. Also, Publishers would be required to submit monthly compliance reports detailing the grievances received and the actions are taken, as per the guidelines.
What is the Redressal System under this New IT Rules?
In order to adhere to the code of ethics, a three-tier redressal system for addressing the grievances received by the digital news and media houses and OTT platforms will be created. (What are new IT Rules to regulate digital)
Level 1- Self Regulation
Both news and curated content publishers have been mandated to formally create a self-regulation mechanism at an organizational level. Functions of self- regulation mechanism will include:
- Appoint a Grievance Officer based in India;
- The grievance officer will take a decision on grievances received by them within 15 days of filing;
- And they will also act as the contact person in charge for the complainant, the self-regulating body and the MIB.
Level 2- Self Regulating Industrial Bodies
The new rules for publishers have mandated a long-practiced norm of establishing self-regulatory bodies, i.e., independent bodies constituted by publishers or their associations that must be registered with MIB. These associations will look after the grievances being redressed timely, maintain adherence to the code of ethics, and guiding the publishers in such matters. (What are new IT Rules to regulate digital)
Level 3 – Oversight Mechanism by Canter
The “oversight mechanism by centre,” will be developed by the Central government. It will be issuing orders and directions to publishers about adherence to the code of ethics and can empower the authorized officer to block information or part of it. (What are new IT Rules to regulate digital)
What are the major concerns of these rules for online news portals?
Several worries arise when it comes to news media regulation. Because the IT Act of 2000 does not apply to news media, the guidelines do not have the legal authority to control news media. As a result, these Rules have far-reaching authority over the parent Act. Furthermore, these rules are in violation of section 79 of the IT Act, which offers a “safe harbour” through the IT Act.
The unclear definition of “publisher of news and current affairs content” may lead to even more arbitrary decisions. Replica e-papers of newspapers are not included in the definition. This ambiguity in the definition would allow the government to act arbitrarily in the exercise of substantial discretionary powers, including the ability to censor the media at will. Furthermore, it is unclear what the point of compelling major publishers of news and current affairs content to report the authority established by Government.
The Editors Guild of India wrote to the Prime Minister on March 6, requesting that the government repeal the restrictions and permit genuine talks on media legislation. “The most concerning feature of these laws is the complicated three-tier framework for regulating digital media, which includes a top-level “Inter-Departmental Committee” and broad powers granted to a government officer to ban, change, and deactivate content. Several news and media companies have sued to have these rules declared “ultra vires” by the courts.
Moreover, the laws have also provided a traceability framework for messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal, among others, which is a major source of concern. Recently, in a report, experts at the United Nations Office of the Human Rights Commissioner expressed concern that India’s Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, do not comply with international human rights principles in their current form.