Digital rights outfits call upon Indian govt to roll back IT Rules

Digital rights organisation Access Now and 13 other outfits called upon the Government of India to “end its wave of digital censorship and intimidation, including immediately withdrawing its new rules for governing content and communications online”.

The coalition, which includes Article 19, Association for Progressive Communications, Center for Democracy and Technology, Dangerous Speech Project, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Human Rights Watch, is also asking corporations to step up against the intrusion by Indian authorities into the rights of the millions of people who use their services everyday.

“The Government of India is seeking to seize control of online spaces,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Senior International Counsel and Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now. “There is a complete lack of transparency surrounding existing government censorship and surveillance demands; the new rules issued by the executive branch are being used to bully social media platforms and online services into compliance. This assault on fundamental human rights must end.”

The government notified the Information Technology (Guidelines For Intermediaries And Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 in February, giving significant social media frms, or those with over five million registered users, three months to comply with them.

However, in May, things came to a head when some content shared by some Bharatiya Janata Party Twitter handles were tagged “manipulated media” in accordance with the microblogging platform’s policy that gives it “reason to believe that media shared in a Tweet have been significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated”.

This led to a very public standoff between Twitter and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. At one point, the Delhi Police reached Twitter offices to serve notice on one of its employees.

“These are troubling indicators of how the Indian Government, which has already been criticised for silencing protests, criminalising dissent, and blocking access to the internet, will use the expanded powers under the new intermediary rules, notified under the in February 2021, to restrict online content, and chill free expression and access to information. The rules apply to all internet intermediaries, including social media companies, digital media and video streaming services,” the joint letter from the organisations noted.

The new IT Rules also impose data retention and “traceability” requirements which will undermine end-to-end encryption, resulting in a chilling effect on freedom of expression and freedom of association even on private messaging platforms, and put the personal data and privacy of users in India at risk. The rules run afoul of the necessity and proportionality standard laid down by the Supreme Court of India and the UN Human Rights Committee, and are inconsistent with the Indian Constitution, the representation added.

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