Centre for Internet & Society

With MPs raising concerns over open-ended interpretations of restrictive terms in the rules seeking to regulate social media and internet, the government promised to evolve a consensus on points of contention.

Pranesh Prakash is quoted in this article published by the Times of India on May 18, 2012

Telecom minister Kapil Sibal's assurance came at the end of an engrossing debate in Rajya Sabha on a motion moved by CPM MP P Rajeeve who said the rules violated freedom of expression and free speech.

He found support from leader of opposition Arun Jaitley who picked several examples to point out that terms or descriptions like "harmful", "blasphemous" and "defamatory" did not lend themselves to precise legal definitions.

Jaitley said what the government may find defamatory may not be seen in similar light by its critics. He also pointed to the difficulties of controlling technology and asked if it was desirable to do so.

Assuring MPs who sought the annulment of 'rules' which are aimed at regulating internet content, Sibal said, "My assurance to the House is that I will request the MPs to write letters to me objecting to any specific words. I will then call a meeting of the members as well as the industry and all stakeholders. We will have a discussion and whatever consensus emerges, we will implement it."

The move to put rules in place flows from the government's annoyance with what it sees as scurrilous and disrespectful comments about senior Congress leaders. It had suggested pre-screening of content which service providers were reluctant to consider.

The motion for annulling the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules notified in April 2011 was, however, defeated by a voice vote. Justifying the rules, the minister said "these are sensitive issues" as most internet companies were registered abroad and not subjected to Indian laws.

TOI was first to report about the new rules that put a lot of the onus on intermediaries like internet service providers, Facebook and Twitter, to manage and monitor content produced by their users. Web activists believe the IT rules are open to arbitrary interpretation and can be misused to silence freedom of speech.

Google, which participated in the public consultative process before the rules were framed, had told TOI, "If Internet platforms are held liable for third party content, it would lead to self-censorship and reduce the free flow of information."

Moving the motion, Rajeeve said, "I am not against any regulation on internet but I am against any control on internet... In control, there is no freedom... These rules attempt to control internet and curtail the freedom of expression."

Complimenting the CPM member, Jaitley said, "I think he (Rajeeve) deserves a compliment for educating us on this rule that Parliament has a supervisory control as far as subordinate legislations are concerned, and, if need be, we can express our vote of disapproval to the subordinate legislations."

MPs felt the government should consider a regime where offensive content can be removed immediately after being posted rather than trying to sieve it out.

Noting that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to defy technology and that the days of withholding information have gone, Jaitley urged the minister to "reconsider the language of restraints" to prevent its misuse. He pointed to certain words - harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory - used in the rules, explaining how these could be interpreted/misinterpreted at any stage.

The MPs did note that the internet had a risk of inciting hate speech and frenzy in society and therefore it needed to be restrained but the device could be swift identification of objectionable content.

Pranesh Prakash of Centre for Internet and Society, an organization that has been advocating withdrawal of the rules, said he was sad with the outcome in Rajya Sabha. "The IT minister has promised to hold consultations but the ideal way to do so would have been to scrap the rules and start from scratch," he said.

"It's not only about language in these rules. There is a problem with provisions like the one that empowers intermediaries to remove content without notifying the user who had uploaded the content or giving users a chance to explain themselves."