Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar on Tuesday said the Centre will hold discussions with stakeholders before implementing a proposal that would require online platforms to take down any content identified as fake by the Press Information Bureau or any other agency authorised for fact-checking by the government.
The draft proposal was introduced on January 17 by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology as an amendment to the Information Technology Rules, 2021.
The Editors Guild of India, Digipub News India Foundation, an association of independent digital news publishers, the Press Association and News Broadcasters and Digital Association have urged the Centre to withdraw the proposed amendment. Experts also warned that if the proposed change is introduced, it could severely hurt news reporting and free speech on the internet.
“We will hold separate consultation [on PIB fact check] sometime early next month,” Chandrasekhar said on Tuesday, according to PTI.
The government has been in a tussle with social media platforms over the last couple of years after they refused to follow orders that certain content or accounts be taken down for allegedly spreading misinformation.
The Press Information Bureau’s fact-checking unit was set up in 2019. It has frequently faced criticism for merely issuing denials to news articles critical of the government, rather than fact-checking how the claims are false. It has also put its “fake news” stamp on accurate articles that were critical of the government.
On Monday, the News Broadcasters and Digital Association said the proposed amendment will directly affect the news media as the intermediaries may be coerced or directed by the Press Information Bureau or any other agency to take down content without following the principles of natural justice.
An “intermediary” means anyone who “receives, stores or transmits” records on behalf of someone or “provides any service with respect to that record”. Intermediaries include not just social media companies but also telecom service providers, web-hosting service providers and search engines.
The amendment, the News Broadcasters and Digital Association said, gives the government excessive powers to regulate digital news content without any scrutiny.
“It is observed that conferring such powers to government without any checks and balances will result in muzzling the fourth pillar of democracy and also have a chilling effect on the media,” the statement added. “This amendment gives the government unbridled and unfettered right to interfere with the free speech rights of the media without any oversight.”
Prateek Waghre, policy director at civil rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation, told Scroll.in that the manner in which the amendment was introduced at the last minute indicates that this is happening in an “ad-hoc way”.
The government had released draft rules on January 2 for regulating online gaming and stakeholders had to send in their comments by January 17. But on the last day of comments, the government issued an amendment regarding fake news. Later, the stakeholders were given time to send a response by January 25.