From the Viewsroom

New Information Technology Act must respect privacy and freedom of speech

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on February 27, 2020

Certain provisions in the Information Technology Act have been misused umpteen times in the past by governments, companies and civil society groups to curb dissenting opinions

Even though the Centre’s plan to update the nearly 20-year-old Information Technology (IT) Act, as IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad suggested just this week, in sync with the new and emerging challenges in the technology space, is most welcome and well-timed, policymakers must exercise caution. While re-tuning the controversial and much-abused piece of legislation so as to make sure it becomes more transparent and egalitarian, they must bid adieu to the draconian provisions the Act has been infamous for.

According to the minister, new challenges have emerged as the technology ecosystem has changed over the years and, hence, the government will set up an expert panel that would give suggestions on updating the Act. Prasad says cyber-security and data privacy will get prominence in the revision, which would also consider the Supreme Court judgment on privacy and protection. Another important focal point will be digital payments because digital delivery platforms have grown exponentially in the past decade and, according to the minister, such a scenario was not even contemplated when the IT Act came into being.

No doubt, the IT Act needs drastic, democratic changes to include provisions that would ensure privacy of data and check misuse of technology. But any revision must address a few crucial factors. The first is ensuring freedom of speech. Certain provisions in the IT Act have been misused umpteen times in the past by governments, companies and civil society groups to curb dissenting opinions. It was only in 2016 that the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the IT Act citing it was violative of Article 19(1)a of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.

Interestingly, provisions of Sections 66A, 69A and the Rules under Section 79 of the IT Act, which had caused serious damage to constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech in the country, were introduced as amendments into the Act, in order to check malicious behaviour on cyberspace. But as their evolution has proved, they have become Frankenstein’s monsters in next to no time.

In 2000, when the IT Act was introduced, fake news or online hate speech was not as big a threat to society’s well-being as they are today. Most cutting-edge developments in commercial applications, advancements in Internet of Things, deep-learning and similar technologies happened over the past two decades, exposing people to data vulnerabilities and making them pawns in the larger-than-life games played by surveillance-fetish governments and data gorging tech behemoths that harbour dubious commercial interests.

The changes to the IT Act must take into account these social realities and make sure the common, tech-illiterate citizen is not hoodwinked by such malicious intent and end up sacrificing his/her precious private information. Considering the power of the companies and the government’s desire for surveillance-driven control of citizens, this is going to be a big ask.

Published on February 27, 2020

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