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Experts' group asks govt to withdraw changes in intermediary guidelines

Neha Alawadhi/New Delhi 15 Mar 19 | 09:39 PM

Illustration: Ajay Mohanty

A global coalition of 31 civil society and technology experts on Friday wrote to the Prime Minister's Office, asking that a set of proposed changes seeking to regulate online platforms be withdrawn by the government. 

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In a joint letter to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), the coalition asked the government to withdraw the draft amendments proposed to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules.

"As published, the draft amendments would erode digital security and undermine the exercise of human rights globally," the coalition said in its letter, which was addressed to Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Minister for Electronics and Information Technology, IT Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney, Group Coordinator - Cyberlaw and eSecurity Group, MeitY, Joint Secretary S. Gopalakrishnan, MeitY and the PMO.

In December, MeitY had proposed changes to Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and asked for public comments on the draft amendments that seek to regulate a set of companies that qualify as intermediaries.  

The consultation was primarily aimed at the spread of fake news through companies like WhatsApp and Facebook.

Social media platforms (such as Facebook, Twitter), cloud services (like Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud), internet service providers (like Airtel, BSNL), email service providers etc. all come within the purview of the definition of an intermediary. If an intermediary seeks to avail itself of a ‘safe harbour’ from liability, specified under Section 79, arising from the actions of the intermediary’s users, they must fulfil the requirements and compliances under the Intermediary Guidelines. In case of non-compliance, an intermediary becomes liable for the actions of the users of its services as well.

The proposed amendments have asked for, among other things, that the intermediary trace the origin of a fake message. This would mean platforms like WhatsApp would have to weaken their encryption and undermine user privacy.

"The proposed amendments would enable the Indian government to demand actions by tech companies that would undermine digital security, and threaten users’ privacy and free expression. The government should withdraw its current proposal and develop a rights-respecting alternative that is tailored to address the specific actual harms it seeks to prevent," said Sharon Bradford Franklin, Director of Surveillance & Cybersecurity Policy, New America’s Open Technology Institute, a signatory of the letter.

The signatories have further said that the proposed amendments would undermine secure communications and create an overbroad surveillance regime for intermediaries by empowering a wide variety of government organisations to request ‘information and assistance’ from intermediaries.

The civil society organisations include Advocacy for Principled Action in Government, Center for Democracy & Technology, Centre for Internet and Society, Derechos Digitales (Latin America), Digital Empowerment Foundation, Fundación Acceso (Centroamérica), Human Rights Watch, Internet Society (Panamá), and The Dialogue.

“With India going to general elections in the next month, and the model code of conduct against new policy decision in place, the government must pause and withdraw the proposed amendments. India, as the world’s largest democracy, must work towards protecting the rights of its citizens and establish a regulatory regime which protects and empowers the fundamental rights of free expression, and privacy. The amendment currently would not only erode digital security but also harm the human rights of users globally," said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Policy Director and Senior International Counsel at Access Now, one of the signatories of the letter.

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