The Centre on Thursday withdrew a notification proposing amendments to the new Information Technology rules introduced last year, Medianama reported.
The draft notification seeking comments from stakeholders till June 22 had been uploaded on the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s website. However, it was not accessible later.
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 were notified in February last year and came into force three months later.
The rules aim to regulate intermediaries – which include social media websites such as Facebook, its messenger service app WhatsApp, microblogging platform Twitter, internet service providers and online marketplaces – as well as digital media publishers, which include news websites and streaming services such as Netflix.
Several media outlets have challenged the rules in courts, arguing that the guidelines will allow the government to directly control their content. Several High Courts in the country have either put the rules on hold or struck down multiple parts of it.
In the draft notification, the government proposed to set up a new grievance appellate committee that will have the power to reverse the content moderation decisions of social media companies. Under the IT rules, these firms are already mandated to have an in-house grievance redressal officer.
The proposed amendment set a deadline of 30 days for individuals to file appeals against the decisions taken by the grievance officers, while the committee gets another 30 days to resolve the matter. The panel will have a chairperson and other members appointed by the Central government, the draft notification stated.
“Every order passed by the grievance appellate committee shall be complied with by the concerned intermediary,” it said.
Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, said that the proposed amendments will “increase direct government control over social media platforms” in India. Gupta also warned that “censorship and hate speech will balloon at the same time”.
Supreme Court lawyer NS Nappinai told the Hindustan Times that the Centre’s move to set up a panel through the rules instead of a law enacted by Parliament needs to be assessed. The proposal, she added, will make compliance for social media firms more onerous.
Last year, tensions flared up between the Centre and Twitter after the social media firm refused to fully follow an order to remove hundreds of accounts accused of spreading misinformation about the farmers’ agitation. The social network eventually relented after its local employees were threatened with prison time.
The company also published a blogpost in which it said: “We do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law.”
According to the draft notification, intermediaries have to acknowledge complaints from a user within 24 hours and dispose of the matter within 15 days.
If complaints are “defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, invasive of another’s privacy, including bodily privacy, insulting or harassing on the basis of gender, libellous, racially or ethnically objectionable, false and untrue information”, they should be redressed within 72 hours of the reporting.
The notification added:
“The intermediary concerned will be required to take all reasonable measures to ensure accessibility of its services to users along with reasonable expectation of due diligence, privacy and transparency. The intermediary shall respect the rights accorded to the citizens under the Constitution of India.”
The 2021 rules do not mention these regulations, according to Medianama.
An unidentified official told the Hindustan Times that the draft is being reviewed at the ministerial level.
On May 29, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had withdrawn an advisory issued by one of its offices asking citizens not to share photocopies of their Aadhaar cards with unlicenced private entities.
Two days before that, the Bengaluru regional office of the Unique Identification Authority of India had issued a press release warning that photocopies of the document could be misused.