Will Indian netizens lose their digital rights?

07 Jun,2021


By Indrani Sen


Indrani SenOn February 25, 2021, the Electronics and Information Technology ministry notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 for news publishers and OTT platforms giving a three-month deadline to websites to comply with the same.


The Government introduced the new rules aiming to “establish a soft touch progressive institutional mechanism” for adherence to Digital Media Ethics Code by the news publishers and OTT platforms “featuring a Code of Ethics and a three-tier grievance redressal framework”. The new rules are applicable to all digital news publishers, social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and all OTT platforms like Disney Hotstar, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Zee Live, etc.


The time limit of three months expired on May 25, 2021. Subsequently, on May 26 the Digital Division of the I&B Ministry has extended the deadline for OTT platforms by 15 days till June 10, 2021 through a public notice. The public notice has three different formats for furnishing information designed for three types of publishers:

1. Digital news publishers who also publish/ telecast news through traditional media
(newspaper/ TV)
2. Other digital news publishers
3. Publishers of online curated contents (OTT platforms)


There is not much difference between the three types of forms except that for the first category under “Entity Information” the digital news publishers are only required to furnish the RNI registration number or details of TV channels licensed by the I&B Ministry under Uplinking and Downlinking rules. Where as the publishers of the other two categories have to provide various other details about their entity. In all the three formats, the publishers have to provide details of their membership of Self-Regulatory bodies in the industry.


The first two categories of publishers are required to give details of their News Editor while the OTT platforms have to give details of their Content Manager. All three have to furnish the details of their Grievance Redressal Officer (GRO) in India.


In the meantime, both News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and News Broadcasters Federation (NBF) have requested the I&B Ministry that traditional news broadcasters also publishing digital news should be excluded from coming under the purview of the new IT Rules. With only three days left before the new deadline on June 10, 2021 the Ministry has not yet replied / given a clarification to MBA and NBF. A reminder has issued a reminder on June1, 2021 asking all publishers on the digital media to furnish the required information to the Ministry.


Over the last three months we have seen lot of debates in various media websites on if live news will continue on the OTT platforms and what will be the implications if OTT platforms stop live news. There has been hardly any discussion on mainline media on the implications of the proposed Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules. If we deep dive into the three-tier structure for grievance redressal or for observance and adherence to the Digital Code of Ethics, then we find that the Level I comprise Self- regulation by the specific entity and Level II comprise of Self-regulation by the self-regulating bodies of which the specific entity is a member of. It is Level III which becomes an area of concern where Oversight mechanism by Central Government will be acting over and above the Self-regulatory bodies with power to censor and even block the contents.


The Wire published an excellent analysis of the proposed IT rules on February 27, 2021, day after the new IT Rules were announced and commented on the three-ties system “All of this is being planned to be done without any legislative backing or a clear law made by parliament.” (https://thewire.in/tech/explainer-how-the-new-it-rules-take-away-our-digital-rights). On the same day https://scroll.in also published a detail analysis of the new It rules explaining why the same is anti-democratic and unconstitutional


Under the disguise of introducing a soft touch progressive institutional mechanism, the Central Government is about to introduce an autocratic digital censorship and rob all Indian netizens of their digital freedom as well as of expressing their own views on social media platforms. And this move is being executed when the country is still struggling with the second wave of Covid-19, when digital media is acting like a lifeline for many Covid patients, Covid volunteers and frontline medical practitioners all across the country.


Indrani Sen is a veteran advertising professional and academic. She writes on MxMIndia on Mondays. Her views here are personal

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