Centre for Internet & Society

An MHA order last week authorised 10 government agencies to scan data on computers. This was followed by the Modi government’s proposal to amend the Information Technology rules for social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter to “proactively identify, remove or disable access to unlawful information or content” in order to curb fake news online.

The article by Fatima Khan was published in the Print on December 28, 2018. Amber Sinha was quoted.

No concrete steps taken by either NDA or UPA to enact laws for surveillance reform

The MHA order which gives 10 government agencies the power to intercept, monitor and decrypt ‘any information’ generated, transmitted, received, or stored in any computer, reaffirms the sorry state of communication surveillance law in India. This is reflected in the lack of judicial review, minimal legislative oversight and no regard for the principles of necessity, proportionality, user notification and transparency.

Despite detailed recommendations by the Committee of Experts led by Justice AP Shah back in 2013, there have been no concrete steps taken by either the current NDA government or the previous UPA government to enact laws for surveillance reform. The draft bill by the committee led by Justice Srikrishna does refer to the principles of necessity and proportionality, but stops short of recommending an overhaul of the surveillance regime. This notification is but merely the logical next step in the existing framework for communications surveillance.

On the other hand, the draft amendments to the IT Act regulations seek to address the problem of ‘unlawful content’ and seem to stem largely from concerns about the use of platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp to spread disinformation and impact electoral processes in India. To that extent, these steps are misguided and betray a failure to engage with the actual problem. Already, the powers of content moderation exercised by online platforms suffer from problems of transparency and accountability. The draft regulations will only serve to compound this problem while unreasonably expecting the platforms to exercise powers which should require judicial determination.