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'Centre’s new IT rules will have a chilling effect on digital news media'

Our Bureau Chennai | Updated on March 25, 2021

The Centre’s new IT rules, which aim to bring digital news publishers and OTT platforms under the same regulations as that of traditional media, will not only affect the freedom of speech but will also have a chilling effect on digital news media, especially the smaller ones, according to senior journalists and digital rights activists.

“One the big change that happened in the last 15 years is that the mainstream media has been challenged by the new voices on the internet, which are basically smaller companies,” R Jagannathan, Editorial Director, Swarajya said, adding, “If the government wants these companies to have an oversight company or develop redressal mechanism, it will again constrict the rules only to rich guys who can afford to have a whole panoply officials dealing with the bureaucrats.”

 

He spoke at a webinar, ‘Digital Content Rights & Regulation: A practitioner's approach’ organised by the Chennai International Centre (CIC) on Thursday.

On Thursday, the Central Government notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. The new IT rules require social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to identify the originator of a message that authorities consider to be anti-national and against the country’s security and sovereignty. It also requires OTT platforms to self-classify content on their platforms according to five age-based categories.

Jagannathan added that while the government’s intent to curb fake news or child porn is laudable, the way the state will implement it is going to be a ‘disaster’.

Girish Srivatsava, Public Policy & Strategy Expert, Ex-Nasscom, Indian Broadcasting Foundation and the moderator of the webinar said, one of the main concerns for the social media companies will be to break the promise of end-to-end encryption to identify the first originator of the information, misinformation, dis-information as the case may be.

Journalist & Digital Rights Activist Nikhil Pahwa said that while the right to privacy is not absolute, forcing a change in technology platform's architecture could fundamentally compromise every individual’s privacy using that platform.

“While the government’s concern is understandable, the problem is one cannot make people more secure by making the platform more vulnerable,” Pahwa, who is also the founder of Medianama, added.

Three-tier mechanism of regulation

The new IT rules also mandate a three-tier mechanism for regulation of all online media content. While the first tier of the regulatory mechanism is at the company level, the second level involves the Press Council of India-like regulatory bodies. The third tier will comprise an inter-ministerial committee. It will be headed by a joint secretary-level officer from the I&B Ministry.

KR Sreenivas, Former Resident Editor (TOI) & Editor (Research), Daily Thanthi Group said all news sites already fall under the Press Council of India’s ambit, and there is no necessity to bring a separate set of rules to govern them.

He also added that if at all the government wants to bring down content (in the interest of security, safety and sovereignty of India etc) it can direct the removal through the Press Council of India, which is headed by seasoned editors.

On the pre-screening of OTT contents by private bodies, Ankit Sahni, Intellectual Property & TMT Lawyer said, it will be detrimental to the actual fabric of the democracy to have a private body pre-screen content. All the offences mentioned in objectionable content are already in place under the law.

“It should be done by a court and not a private party or individual where there is always a chance of abuse and restrictions on fundamental rights by one private body against another which is worse than a state or court doing it,” Sahni added.

Published on March 25, 2021

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