New IT rules: UN special rapporteurs express concern

Our Bureau Mumbai | Updated on June 18, 2021

Say they do not conform with international human rights norms

The new IT rules in their current form do not conform with the international human rights norms, according to United Nations experts.

A group of UN special rapporteurs, in a recent communication to the Government of India, which was viewed by BusinessLine, urged the Centre to review certain provisions in the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 that “do not appear to meet the requirements of international law and standards related to the rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression”.

The provisions may hinder the right to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression as protected by Articles 17 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, acceded to by India on April 10, 1979, said the experts .

“We are concerned that the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, in their current form, do not conform with international human rights norms,”said the experts in their report. “As a global leader in technology innovation, India has the potential to develop a legislation that can place it at the forefront of efforts to protect digital rights. However, the substantially broadened scope of the Rules is likely to do just the opposite,” they said.

“We would, therefore, encourage the government to take all necessary steps to carry out a detailed review of the Rules and to consult with all relevant stakeholders, including civil society dealing with human rights, freedom of expression, privacy rights and digital rights,” they added.

Grounds of restrictions

In their report, the experts argued that the grounds of restrictions on users and content as provided in the rules are too broad.

The report cited examples from Section (3)(1)(b) of the Rules, which require social-media intermediaries to perform due diligence for content that is “racially or ethnically objectionable”, “harmful to child”, “impersonates another person”, “threatens the unity... of India,” “is patently false and untrue”, “is written or published with the intent to mislead or harass a person [...] to cause any injury to any person”.

According to experts, these terms are “overly broad” and lack sufficiently clear definitions. This may lead to and may lead to arbitrary application.

“As social-media intermediaries deal with a huge amount of content, a rigorous definition of the restriction of freedom of expression is critical for them to protect speeches that are legitimate under international law, such as the expression of dissenting views,” they said.

The report also expressed concerns over the impact that the obligations on companies to monitor and rapidly remove user content could have on the right to freedom of expression. In order to meet these obligations and limit liability, companies may “over comply” with takedown requests, as per the report. Companies may also develop digital or automated content moderation and removal system which may lead to illegitimate censorship.

The report has been signed by Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, who is the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and Joseph Cannataci, the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy.

Published on June 18, 2021

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