- The emergence of social media has given rise to a new misinformation issue that calls for specific measures to be taken to address it.
- A fact-checking unit to identify fake, false, or misleading online content related to the government has been added to the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023. However, the new provisions have raised questions about the Union government’s involvement in regulating the content online.
GS Paper-2: Government Policies and Interventions for Development in various sectors and Issues arising out of their Design and Implementation
Examine critically how the 2023 IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules will affect press freedom, free speech, and the relationship between the government and the media.
What amendment is being debated?
- The 2023 amendment gives MeitY the authority to alert the Central Government’s fact-checking unit, which will identify fake, false, or misleading online content pertaining to any of the Central Government’s businesses.
- Users are cautioned not to host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, store, update, or share information about any activity of the Central Government that has been flagged by the fact-checking unit as being fake, false, or misleading by social media intermediaries (such as Facebook and Twitter) and telecom service providers.The social media intermediaries may lose their “safe harbour” immunity if this rule is broken.
Issues with Fact-Checking Unit
- The Role of the Government as a Regulating Entity: The inclusion of the fact-checking unit in the IT Amendment Rules raises questions about the government’s capacity to act as a regulating entity.
- The government’s authority to label information as “fake” or “false” could be abused to block media organisations from investigating or scrutinising it.
- Abuse of Power: The fact-checking unit’s authority could be abused to suppress free speech and expression.
- Takedown orders issued by the government for critical commentary or opinion on social media platforms can be interpreted as an effort to silence dissenting viewpoints.
- Judicial Oversight: o Without a right of appeal or judicial oversight, the government cannot sit on judgement.
- A fair and impartial system is required to prevent abuse of the fact-checking unit’s authority.
- Threat to Free Speech and Expression: The Union government wants to have a “chilling effect” on the freedom of speech and expression on online platforms by threatening to take away a platform’s immunity for content that has been reported by a government agency.
- The freedom of citizens to access information and express their opinions may be significantly harmed by this.
The Impact on Press Freedom:
- A Constitutional Guarantee: Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, which also protects the right of the public to free speech, guarantees the freedom of the press.
- This right has served as the cornerstone of a democratic society that values transparency and accountability.
- The Need for Arm’s Length Relationship: o The media plays a crucial role in informing the public, and its freedom to report without fear of censorship or intimidation is crucial. o The relationship between the government and the media should be kept at arm’s length to ensure the media has enough freedom.
- The Dangers of Draconian Censorship: o The government’s authority to define “false” or “fake” news and to take action against platforms that publish it can amount to draconian censorship. o In effect, the government has granted itself absolute power to determine what is fake or not in respect of its own work and order takedown. o All of this violates the principles of natural justice and is equivalent to censorship.
Contravention with Existing Guidelines:
These notified amendments could violate Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000, which outlines the process for issuing takedown orders; they also violate Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2015), a ruling with specific instructions for blocking content; and any circumvention of existing guidelines could result in censorship and restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression.
The need for consultations:
- After withdrawing the earlier draught amendments it had released in January 2023, MeitY announced the IT Amendment Rules, 2023 without conducting the meaningful consultations it had promised.
- The lack of consultation is concerning, and the government should consult with media organisations and press bodies before making any significant changes.
- The earlier draught amendments gave the Press Information Bureau broad authority, which was criticised by media organisations across the nation.
- The Union government’s role in policing online content has been questioned in light of the IT Amendment Rules, 2023.
- The fact-check unit’s broad authority to determine what information about central government affairs is true or false and to order takedown has been deemed unacceptable and problematic.
- In addition, there has been concern about the fact that media organisations and press bodies have not been consulted.
- To make sure that press freedom and free speech are not compromised, the government should review the provisions in the IT Amendment Rules, 2023, and engage in meaningful consultations with all stakeholders.