The changes have been proposed through a draft, which seeks amendments to last year’s contentious Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. As the document – which gives overriding powers to the government through appointment of an all-powerful grievance appellate committee (GAC) – started doing the rounds, it was taken off from the website of the IT ministry.
When contacted, IT ministry sources insisted that “not much should be read into the removal” of the draft, clarifying that it will be “back soon”. They refused to share more details.
Legal researcher Gurshabad Grover said the move, if implemented, will give the government the “final word” when it comes to content removal or reinstatement of suspended accounts. “Indirectly the government will be able to censor content that they otherwise will not be able to do directly in a manner consistent with the laws.”
In the proposal that will pit the internet giants in direct confrontation with the government, the draft wants the companies to become more mindful before they suspend/block/remove the account of any user, and proposes that the decision may be overturned by the official committee (GAC) in case a user fails to find any relief against the adverse action from the company’s grievance officer.
“Any person aggrieved by an order made by the grievance officer… may prefer an appeal to the grievance appellate committee (GAC) having jurisdiction in the matter within a period of 30 days of receipt of communication from the grievance officer. The GAC shall deal with such appeals expeditiously and shall make an endeavour to dispose of the appeal finally within 30 calendar days from the date of receipt of the appeal. Every order passed by the GAC shall be complied with by the concerned intermediary,” the draft said.
The GAC – which can be more than one – is proposed to be set up by the central government and consist of a chairperson and other members.
The matter of suspension or blocking of accounts has been a contentious one and the social media outfits have often been accused of high-handedness on the issue by refusing to provide explicit reasons for taking action against accounts seen going against their content policy. And while the intermediary rules that came out last year gave refuge to users to seek redress from the company’s grievance officer, the decisions are seldom overturned.
The draft said that companies should be more alive to the rights of Indian citizens and should not take arbitrary action. “… the intermediary shall respect the rights accorded to the citizens under the Constitution of India,” it said, while adding, “the intermediary shall take all reasonable measures to ensure accessibility of its services to users along with reasonable expectation of due diligence, privacy and transparency.”
Apart from getting powers to overturn the suspension or blocking orders, the new draft also proposes other overriding command to the GAC, especially when it comes to “removal of information or communication link” after a user complains. The content removal request could be around wide-ranging areas such as pornography, defamation, obscenity, libellous, copyright violation, and information against the safety and security of the country.
The draft said that if a user is not satisfied with the action taken by the company around his/her content removal request, the GAC can be contacted within a period of 30 days. The GAC would thereafter decide the matter within 30 days, and its decision “shall be complied with” by the social media company.