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All Posts | May 24,2019

Any regulation of online speech in India must safeguard the rights to free speech and privacy

Unlike the US, free speech in India is not absolute. Our Constitution, while guaranteeing the freedom of speech and expression, places “reasonable restrictions” on this basic human right.

Before 2015, online and offline speech were treated on different pedestals under law. As per Section 66A, an infamous provision of India’s Information Technology Act, 2000, anyone who posted material that was grossly offensive, inconvenient, injurious, menacing in character or insulting, could be imprisoned for up to three years.

This draconian provision was struck down by India’s Supreme Court in 2015 for being violative of the constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech and expression, in the landmark case, Shreya Singhal vs Union of India.

Besides championing free speech in the online world, the Supreme Court, in Shreya Singhal, absolved content hosting platforms like search engines and social media websites from constantly monitoring their platforms for illegal content, enhancing existing safe-harbour protection (legal protection given to internet companies for content posted by their users).

The court made it clear that only authorised government agencies and the judiciary could legitimately request internet platforms to take down content. As content hosting platforms are the gatekeepers of digital expression, this was a turning point in India’s online free speech regime.

Despite Shreya Singhal, state authorities continued their use of Section 66A and other legal provisions to curb online speech. In 2017, a youth from the state of Uttar Pradesh was booked under Section 66A for criticising the state’s chief minister on Facebook.

Journalists are often targeted by state authorities for their comments on social media. In September, last year, a Delhi-based journalist was arrested for his tweets on sculptures at the Sun Temple in Konark, Odisha, and another journalist from Manipur was booked under the stringent National Security Act, 1980, and jailed for uploading a video on the internet in which he made remarks deemed to be “derogatory” towards the chief minister of the state.

Proposed amendment

In December, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, the nodal ministry for regulating matters on information technology and the internet, released a draft amendment to guidelines under the Information Technology Act, which prescribe certain conditions for content hosting platforms to seek protection for third-party content.

The amendment, which was brought along to tackle the menace of “fake news” and reduce the flow of obscene and illegal content on social media, seeks to mandate the use of “automated filters” for content takedowns on internet platforms and requires them to trace the originator of that information on their services (this traceability requirement is believed to be targeted at messaging apps like WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram).

Apart from state authorities, content sharing and social media companies take down content in tandem with their community standards and terms and conditions. This is often arbitrary and inconsistent.

In February, Twitter was heavily criticised for blocking journalist Barkha Dutt’s account after she posted personal details of people who were sending her rape threats and obscene pictures. While blocking her account, Twitter failed to takedown the obscene content directed at Dutt.

Similarly, in March, Facebook blocked the account of prominent YouTuber and social media personality Dhruv Rathee after he shared excerpts from Adolf Hitler’s biography Mein Kampf on his Facebook page.

Threat to free speech

Our online speech is heavily dependent on policies (both government and industry lead) which affect digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Recognising this fact, SFLC.in, in March, published a comprehensive report which captures the legal landscape in India and key international developments on content liability on internet platforms.

We believe that government regulation such as the draft amendment to the rules that regulate platform liability undermines free speech and privacy rights of Indians in the online world, while promoting private censorship by companies.

Having said that, acknowledging the problems of circulation of illegal content, legitimate access to law enforcement and disinformation on the internet, the law should mandate governance structures and grievance mechanisms on the part of intermediaries, enabling quick takedown of content determined as illegal by the judiciary or appropriate government agencies.

The “filter bubble” effect, where users are shown similar content, results in readers not being exposed to opposing views, due to which they become easy targets of disinformation.

The way forward

Content hosting platforms must maintain 100% transparency on political advertising and law enforcement agencies should explore existing tools under law (such as Section 69 of the Information Technology Act and exploring agreements under the Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data or CLOUD Act in the US) for access to information.

Tech-companies must also re-think their internal policies to ensure that self-initiated content takedowns are not arbitrary and users have a right to voice their concerns.

Government agencies should work with internet platforms to educate users in identifying disinformation to check its spread.

Lastly, the government should adhere to constitutionally mandated principles and conduct multi-stakeholder consultations before drafting internet policy to safeguard the varying interests of interested parties.

All Posts | Apr 12,2019

Blue Paper – Conference on Future of Tech Policy in India

We organised a Conference on 'Future of Tech Policy in India' on 15 March 2019 in Delhi. Over 150 people participated in the conference. Our report on Intermediary Liability 2.0 - A shifting Paradigm was launched during this conference.

 

A Blue Paper containing inputs received during this conference is available below. This document does not reflect the views of SFLC.in.

 

Brief agenda:

  • 09:30 AM to 10:00 AM: Registration

  • 10:00 AM to 11:30 AM: Session 1 - Misinformation and Intermediary Liability

  • 11:30 AM to 11:40 AM: Overview of the Report on ‘Intermediary Liability 2.0: A Shifting Paradigm’

  • 11:40 AM to 11:50 AM: Tea Break

  • 11:50 AM to 01:15 PM: Session 2 - The Role of Social Media in Elections

  • 01:15 PM to 02:00 PM: Lunch

  • 02:00 PM to 03:20 PM: Session 3 - Online Harassment

  • 03:20 PM to 03:30 PM: Tea Break

  • 03:30 PM to 03:50 PM: Lightning Talk on FreedomBox

  • 03:50 PM to 05:00 PM: Session 4 - The Future of Tech Policy

All Posts | Feb 19,2019

Submission to Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology

Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology invited views on the issue of “Safeguarding Citizens Rights on Social/Online News Media Platforms”. The views were heard on 11th February 2019 along with inputs from MeitY and Twitter.

We at SFLC.in made our submission on common forms of harm on the internet, common remedial measures undertaken or provided by online platforms and the existing legal provisions. We also submitted our recommendations supporting right to privacy, endorsing strong encryption, emphasising importance of safe harbour for intermediaries, advocating wider consultations for finding solutions to tackle hate speech, opposing proactive monitoring of content and suggesting that intermediaries be free to come out with their own Terms of Service. Our submitted views are given below:

All Posts | Feb 01,2019

Blue Paper: Misinformation and Draft Intermediary Guidelines

In the wake of increased spread of misinformation on social media, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has issued The Draft Information Technology [Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules], 2018.

SFLC.in conducted a series of discussions on misinformation and the proposed Draft Intermediary Guidelines across India in January 2019 including New Delhi (Jan 11 & 18), Bengaluru (Jan 15), Mumbai (Jan 16) and Kochi (Jan 30).

This Blue Paper contains the comments, remarks and inputs made during the above-mentioned discussions by the participants. The document does not reflect the views of SFLC.in.

All Posts | Jan 28,2019

Countering Misinformation: Policies and Solutions, Kochi

SFLC.in is organizing “Countering Misinformation: Policies and Solutions” a round table discussion to understand the phenomenon of misinformation and disinformation, and discuss solutions to tackle the issue.

In recent times, the impact of misinformation and disinformation campaigns in terms of inciting violence, mob lynchings and manipulating elections have reached unprecedented levels. The Internet has undoubtedly facilitated the spread of fake news due to its wide reach and the ease it provides to spread information easily.

This brings us to some important questions that we need to answer in order to engender a discourse to fight fake news. We will seek to answer these questions and brainstorm ideas to inform the policy debate around this issue.

We have published FAQs on Draft Amendment of Intermediary Guidelines Rules in India - https://sflc.in/faq-draft-amendment-intermediary-guidelines-rules-india

Date: January 30, 2019 (Wednesday)

Venue: Hotel Coral Isle,St. Benedict Road, Opp. North Railway Station, Kochi, Kerala

Time: 4.45 pm - 8.00 pm

Please find more details in the agenda below.

All Posts | Jan 21,2019

Press Release – Experts: Media and Digital Literacy Must to Fight Fake News

New Delhi, 22nd January 2019: Ahead of the 2019 general elections in India, it is important to realize the consequences of misinformation and disinformation campaigns, also popularly called fake news, on our democracy. Further, we must actively develop policies and solutions to counter the same, stakeholders and experts unanimously agreed at a discussion organized by Delhi-based legal services organization SFLC.in in Delhi.

The two panel discussions under the topic “Countering Misinformation: Policies and Solutions” featured important stakeholders representing media, social media platforms, law enforcement, civil society and political and legal organizations.

Speaking at the first discussion, Mr. Abhinandan Sekhri, Founder and CEO of Newslaundry.com noted that media organizations must relook at their business models in order to safeguard themselves against fake news. “As far as news is going to be driven by eyeballs and advertising money, there is an incentive (to publish fake news), and facts don't matter,” he said.

Ms. Malavika Balasubramanian, Head of Webqoof (Fact checking initiative of The Quint) elaborated the importance of fact checking by media organizations before publishing any news or video. “A journalist's desire to push through a breaking news could harm somebody, so it's always better to fact check first,” she said.

One of the primary reasons for the proliferation of fake news is the lack of digital literacy. Technology journalist Prasanto K Roy said that fake news spreads with extreme velocity and the reason has to be demographics, 96-97% of internet users are mobile only, they just see a video and forward it without reading the caption that comes along.

Ms. Rupa Jha, Head of Indian Languages at BBC World Service India remarked that the government should encourage and support free and independent journalism, instead of maligning it. “It is high time that media takes responsibility (for fake news). I have immense trust in the Indian electorate, but it is not going to be easy to win back the trust of people,” Ms. Jha said. The study on fake news conducted by BBC found that people do not verify videos shared by family, friends and relatives, as they consider them as trusted sources. She also added that as long as the political dispensation continues to benefit from fake news, the problem will remain.

The second panel discussed possible solutions for countering fake news. Ms. Shehla Rashid, citizen activist called out fake news as ‘propaganda’. “People believe in fake news because of their inherent confirmation bias. Fake news is enmeshed in propaganda, and even if you know that a news is fake, it will still inject some bias especially when it is against a public figure,” she said.

Mr. Ghanshyam Tiwari, spokesperson for Samajwadi Party said, “the government has given a long leash to the multinational corporations that spread fake news.” He also expressed his disappointment with the debate around fake news in the Parliament. Speaking of a solution, he said, “a citizen-led movements are needed to educate the masses against the dangers of fake news. We cannot expect the government or private businesses to create the necessary safeguards.”

Delhi Police Assistant Commissioner Siddhartha Jain, in charge of investigating cybercrime, said that ground level policing is important to combat the social impact of fake news. He also informed that a number of RWA groups in Delhi now have a local constable in their WhatsApp group, and if the constable notices anything being shared on the group that may incite violence or unrest, he promptly informs the SHO of that area.

The panelists unanimously opined that media and digital literacy is the best way forward towards countering fake news. Mr. Berges Malu, Head of Public Policy and Government Affairs at Sharechat, Indian’s leading vernacular social sharing app said, “we strongly believe that educating people is more important than busting fake news.” Ms. Karnika Kohli, Audience editor for Scroll.in agreed, “I do not believe any regulation from government or technology platforms (is needed). Digital and media literacy is the way forward. It is necessary to cultivate the culture of scepticism and question everything. ”

 

 

About SFLC.in

SFLC.in (Software Freedom Law Centre, India) is a Delhi based volunteer-run not for profit organization comprised of lawyers, policy analysts, technologists, and students that strive to protect and promote digital rights and digital freedom. Over the past few years, SFLC.in has been working on issues related to privacy, free speech, data protection, and net-neutrality (among other things), so as to inform the public discourse on these subjects.

 

 

All Posts | Jan 14,2019

Countering Misinformation: Policies and Solutions, Mumbai

SFLC.in is organizing “Countering Misinformation: Policies and Solutions” a roundtable discussion to understand the phenomenon of misinformation and disinformation, and discuss solutions to tackle the issue.

In recent times, the impact of misinformation and disinformation campaigns in terms of inciting violence, mob lynchings and manipulating elections have reached unprecedented levels. The Internet has undoubtedly facilitated the spread of fake news due to its wide reach and the ease it provides to spread information easily.

This brings us to some important questions that we need to answer in order to engender a discourse to fight fake news. We will seek to answer these questions and brainstorm ideas to inform the policy debate around this issue.

Date: January 16, 2019 (Wednesday)

Venue: Office of MouthShut.com - 7, Pali Village, Bandra (West), Mumbai

Time: 1.00 pm -5.30 pm

Please find more details in the agenda below.

All Posts | Jan 14,2019

Countering Misinformation: Policies and Solutions, Bangalore

SFLC.in is organizing “Countering Misinformation: Policies and Solutions” a round table discussion to understand the phenomenon of misinformation and disinformation, and discuss solutions to tackle the issue.

In recent times, the impact of misinformation and disinformation campaigns in terms of inciting violence, mob lynchings and manipulating elections have reached unprecedented levels. The Internet has undoubtedly facilitated the spread of fake news due to its wide reach and the ease it provides to spread information easily.

This brings us to some important questions that we need to answer in order to engender a discourse to fight fake news. We will seek to answer these questions and brainstorm ideas to inform the policy debate around this issue.

Date: January 15, 2019 (Tuesday)

Venue: Hotel Royal Orchid, Golf Avenue, Airport Road, Bangalore

Time: 1.00 pm -5.30 pm

Please find more details in the agenda below.

All Posts | Jan 14,2019

Countering Misinformation: Policies and Solutions, New Delhi

SFLC.in is organizing “Countering Misinformation: Policies and Solutions” a panel discussion to understand the phenomenon of misinformation and disinformation, and discuss solutions to tackle the issue.

In recent times, the impact of misinformation and disinformation campaigns in terms of inciting violence, mob lynchings and manipulating elections have reached unprecedented levels. The Internet has undoubtedly facilitated the spread of fake news due to its wide reach and the ease it provides to spread information easily.

This brings us to some important questions that we need to answer in order to engender a discourse to fight fake news. We will seek to answer these questions and brainstorm ideas to inform the policy debate around this issue.

Date: January 18, 2019 (Friday)

Venue: India International Centre, New Delhi (Lecture Hall No.1)

Time: 12.30 pm -5.30 pm

Please find more details in the agenda below.