The government is reconsidering the “safe harbour” protections for social media companies as it prepares a new Digital India Bill to replace its over two-decades-old Information Technology Act, Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar said on Thursday, The Indian Express reported.
Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, absolves intermediaries of liability for any third party content or users’ posts. Intermediaries include not just social media companies but also telecom service providers, web-hosting service providers and search engines.
The immunity accorded under Section 79, however, is not granted if these platforms do not immediately censor content when directed by the government or its agencies.
On Thursday, Chandrasekhar, the minister of state for electronics and information technology, said that platforms that have enjoyed “safe harbour” protections since 2000s “have now morphed into multiple types of participants and platforms on the internet, functionally very different from each other, and requiring different types of guardrails and regulatory requirements”.
The minister also questioned if there should be a “safe harbour” clause at all for intermediaries.
“Who should be entitled for safe harbour and should the government at all be playing the arbiter between platforms and those who are aggrieved by content on them?” Chandrasekhar asked.
The minister added that there is a need to classify different types of intermediaries and make separate rules for each of them.
“Whether we call them different types of intermediaries, or different types of players on the internet, or types of service providers is a decision we have to take,” he said, according to The Indian Express. “Be it e-commerce, digital media, search engines, gaming platforms, significant social media intermediaries and for good measure fact-checking portals too.”
Prateek Waghre, the policy director at digital rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation, told the Hindustan Times that intermediaries by definition should be eligible for the “safe harbour” clause.
“Before getting to the question of whether some or all intermediaries require these protections, there needs to be a consensus on an understanding of what the harms in the Indian context are,” he added.
The move also comes at a time when India has tightened regulation of big technology firms in recent years, with human rights groups expressing concern that it is being done to silence critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party government.
Chandrasekhar, however, stressed that the main objective of the Digital India Bill is to ensure online safety. The “weaponisation of misinformation” under the garb of free speech will also be regulated under the Bill, he said.
The Centre will hold extensive consultations with the public and industry stakeholders before finalising the Bill, according to Chandrasekhar. He did not mention a timeline for when the draft would be introduced in Parliament.