Centre for Internet & Society

This post examines two badly drafted provisions of the new Anti-Trafficking bill that have the potential to severely impinge upon the Freedom of Expression, including through a misunderstanding of intermediary liability.

On 28 Feb 2018, the Union Cabinet approved ‘The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018’ (‘the bill’) for introduction to the Parliament. This comes after a series of consultations on an earlier 2016 draft bill, that had faced its fair share of criticism. As per the Press Information Bureau announcement, the Ministry of Women and Child Development met with various stakeholders including 60 NGOs and have incorporated many of the suggestions put forth. They’ve also stated that ‘the new law will make India a leader among South Asian countries to combat trafficking.’

However, at first glance, there appear to be several issues with overbroad or vague language used in the drafting of the bill, that stretch it into potentially problematic areas. This current post will focus on two such provisions that could lead to a deleterious effect on the Freedom of Expression. As the bill is currently not publicly available, a stakeholder’s copy of the draft is being used to source these provisions. The relevant sections have been reproduced below for convenience. (Emphasis in bold is as provided by the author).

Section 39: Buying or Selling of any person

39. (l) Whoever buys or sells any person for a consideration, shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than seven years but may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine which shall not be less than one lakh rupees.

(2) Whoever solicits or publicises electronically, taking or distributing obscene photographs or videos or providing materials or soliciting or guiding tourists or using agents or any other form which may lead to the trafficking of a person shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than five years but may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine which shall not be less than fifty thousand rupees but which may extend to one lakh rupees.

The grammatical acrobatics of section 39(2) aside, this anti-solicitation provision is severely problematic in that it mandates punishment even for a vaguely defined action or actions that may not actually be connected to the trafficking of a person. In other words, the provision doesn’t require any of the actions to be connected to trafficking in their intent or even outcome, but only in potential connection to the outcome. At the same time, it says these ‘shall’ be punished!

This vagary that ignores actual or even probabilistic causation flies in the face of standard criminal law which requires mens rea along with actus rea. The excessively wide scope of this badly drafted provision leaves it prone to abuse. For example, currently the provision allows the following interpretation to be included: ‘Whoever publicizes electronically, by providing materials in any form, which may lead to trafficking of a person shall be punished…’. Even the electronic publicizing of an academic study on trafficking could fall under the provision as it currently reads, if it is argued that publishing studies that show the prevalence of trafficking ‘may lead to the trafficking of a person’! It is not hard to imagine that an academic study that shows trafficking numbers at embarrassingly high rates could be threatened with this provision. Similarly, any of our vast number of self-appointed moral guardians could also pull within this provision any artistic work that they may personally find offensive or ‘obscene’. Simply put, without any burden of showing a causal connect, it could be argued that anything ‘may lead’ to the trafficking of a person. Needless to say, this paves the way for a severe chilling effect on free speech, especially on critical speech around trafficking issues.

Section 41: Offences related to media

41. (l) Whoever commits trafficking of a person with the aid of media, including, but not limited to print, internet, digital or electronic media, shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than seven years but may extend to ten years and shall also be liable to fine which shall not be less than one lakh rupees.

(2) Whoever distributes, or sells or stores, in any form in any electronic or printed form showing incidence of sexual exploitation, sexual assault, or rape for the purpose of exploitation or for coercion of the victim or his family members, or for unlawful gain shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three years but may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine which shall not be less than one lakh rupees.

The drafters of this bill have perhaps overlooked the fact that unlike the physical world, the infrastructure of the electronic / digital world requires 3rd party intermediaries to handle information during most forms of electronic activities, whether it is transmission, storage or display. As it is not feasible, desirable or even practically possible for intermediaries to verify the legality of every bit of data that gets transferred or stored by the intermediary, ‘safe harbours’ are provided in law for intermediaries, protecting them from liability of the information being transmitted through them. These ensure that entities that act as architectural requirements and intermediary platforms are able to operate smoothly and without fear. If intermediaries are not granted this protection, it puts them in the unenviable position of having to monitor un-monitorable amounts of data, and face legal action for the slip-ups that are bound to happen regularly. Furthermore, there are several levels of free speech and privacy issues associated with having multiple gatekeepers on the expression of speech online. A charitable reading of the intent of a provision which does not recognise safe harbours for 3rd party intermediaries, would be that the drafters of the bill have simply not realised that users who upload and initiate transfer of information online, are not the same parties who do the actual transmission of the information.

Distribution, selling or storing of information online would require the transmission of information over intermediaries, as well as the temporary storage of such information on intermediary platforms. In India, intermediaries engaging with transmission or temporary storage of information are provided safe harbour[1] by Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (‘IT Act’), so long as they:

(i) act as a mere ‘conduit’ and do not initiate the transmission, select the receiver of the transmission, or select or modify the information contained in the transmission.

(ii) exercise due diligence while discharging duties under this Act, and observes other guidelines that the Central Government may prescribe.

The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules, 2011, list out the nature of the due diligence to be followed by intermediaries to claim exemption under Section 79 of the IT Act.

Intermediaries will not be granted safe harbour if they have conspired, abetted, aided or induced commission of the unlawful act, or if they do not remove or disable access to information upon receiving actual knowledge, or notice from the Government, of the information that is transmitted or stored by the intermediary being used for unlawful purposes.

Thus it can be seen that the IT Act already provides an in-depth regime for intermediary liability, and given its non-obstante clause which states that Section 79 of the IT Act would apply “Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force” ,  as well as the reiteration of the IT Act’s overriding effect via Section 81, which states that the provisions of the Act ‘shall have effect notwithstanding anything inconsistent therewith contained in any other law for the time being in force’ (barring the exercise of copyright or patent rights), it is generally considered the appropriate legal framework for this issue. However, it appears that the drafters of the 2018 Anti-trafficking bill have not considered this aspect at all, since they have not referenced the IT Act in this context in the bill, and have additionally added their own non-obstante clause in Section 59 of the bill:

59. The provisions of this Act, shall be in addition to and not in derogation of the provisions of any other law for the time being in force and, in case of any inconsistency, the provisions of this Act shall have overriding effect on the provisions of any such law to the extent of the inconsistency.

So the regime as prescribed by the IT Act allows for safe harbours, whereas the regime as prescribed by the Anti-Trafficking bill does not allow for safe harbours, and both say that they would an overriding effect for any conflicting law. This legislative bumble could potentially be solved by using the settled principle that a special Act prevails over a general legislation. This is still a little tricky as they are technically both special Acts. It could be argued that given the context of the Anti-trafficking bill as focusing on trafficking, and the context of the IT Act focusing on the interface of law and technology, that for the purposes of Section 41(2) of the Anti-trafficking bill, the IT Act is the special legislation. And thus Section 79 of the IT Act should make redundant the relevant portion of Section 41(2) of the Anti-trafficking bill. This reading would require the bill to be modified so as to remove the redundancy and the conflicting portion of Section 41(2).

[1] In 2016, a division bench of the Delhi High Court held in the case of Myspace Inc vs Super Cassettes Industries Ltd that a safe harbour immunity for intermediaries was necessary as it was not technically feasible to pre-screen content from third parties, and that tasking intermediaries with this responsibility could have a chilling effect on free speech, It held that their responsibility was limited to the extent of acting upon receiving ‘actual knowledge’. Earlier, in determining what ‘actual knowledge’ refers to, in 2015 the Supreme Court of India in the landmark case of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, required this to be in the form of a notice via a court or government order. Thus under our current law, intermediaries are granted a safe harbour from liability so long as they act upon court or government orders which notify them of content that is required to be taken down.

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