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UN body says new IT rules not in sync with India's international obligations, Modi govt says it empowers users

'The victims of abuse on social media platforms shall have a forum for redressal of their grievances'
jith Athrady
Last Updated : 21 June 2021, 02:24 IST
Last Updated : 21 June 2021, 02:24 IST
nirban Bhaumik
Last Updated : 21 June 2021, 02:24 IST
Last Updated : 21 June 2021, 02:24 IST
Last Updated : 21 June 2021, 02:24 IST
Last Updated : 21 June 2021, 02:24 IST

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India’s new Information Technology rules are not in sync with global standards of rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, three Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations recently wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

New Delhi, however, countered the criticism by the UN Special Rapporteurs and highlighted in its response the well-recognised democratic credentials of India. The Permanent Mission of India to the UN Offices in Geneva in its response underlined that the right to freedom of speech and expression was guaranteed under the constitution and the independent judiciary and a robust media were part of democratic structure of the country.

The UN Special Rapporteurs expressed serious concern over India’s Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which was introduced on February 25 last. They wrote in a joint letter to the Government of India, arguing that the new IT rules might compromise the right to privacy of every user of the Internet. “We are notably concerned by the ability of executive authorities (under the new IT rules) to issue orders to access to user data and restrict content, which seems to take place outside of any judicial oversight mechanism that would hold authorities accountable.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Irene Khan, joined and Joseph Cannataci, Special Rapporteurs on Right to Privacy, and, Clément Nyaletsossi, Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, to write the letter to the Government of India.

They argued that a number of provisions of the new IT rules did not appear to meet the requirements of international law and standards related to the rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression, as protected by Articles 17 and 19 of the ICCPR, which the Government of India acceded to on April 10, 1979.

The Modi Government in New Delhi, however, maintained that the new IT rules were designed to empower ordinary users of social media. “The enactment of new IT Rules had become necessary due to widespread concerns about issues relating to increased instances of abuse of social media and digital platforms, including inducement for recruitment of terrorists, circulation of obscene content, spread of disharmony, financial frauds, incitement of violence, public order,” the government wrote back to the UN Special Rapporteurs.

The new IT rules came into effect on May 26. Several social media platforms and civil society organisations raised concerns over the new rules.

On the traceability of the first originator of the information, the government said the new IT Rules seeks only limited information. Only when a message already in public circulation is giving rise to violence, impinging on the unity and integrity of India, depicting a woman in a bad light, or sexual abuse of a child and when no other intrusive options are working, only then the significant social media intermediary will be required to disclose as to who started the message.

On the concerns that the rules may be misused deliberately to make a large number of complaints, the government said it was exaggerated and disingenuous and shows lack of willingness to address the grievances of the users of these media platforms while using their data to earn revenues, the government said.

"The Government of India fully recognises and respects the right of privacy, as pronounced by the Supreme Court of India in K S Puttusamy case. Privacy is the core element of an individual's existence and, in light of this, the new IT Rules seeks information only on a message that is already in circulation that resulted in an offence. The Rules have framed in exercise of the statutory powers of the IT Act, fully taking into account the principles of reasonableness and proportionality," the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology stated.

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Published 20 June 2021, 13:07 IST

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