Indian Government Briefly Pulls New IT Bill, Reissues It With Expanded Gov’t Power Over Content Moderation
from the if-it's-deliberately-broken,-don't-fix-it dept
The government of India continues to pretend it’s a democracy while doing everything it can to satisfy an elected leader who now apparently has aspirations to become “dictator for life.” Under Prime Minister Narendra Mohdi, India has moved away from its democratic ideals and closer to the ideals held by one of its closest neighbors, China.
The goal is to silence dissent and control the narrative. Things have escalated since the 2020 “Farmers’ Protests,” which targeted anti-farmer laws passed by the Mohdi government. Controlling a nation of more than a billion people isn’t easy, but the Mohdi-led government is working tirelessly to control as many citizens as possible.
Citing things like “terrorism” and “fake news,” the government has increased its censorship of internet activity and expanded its surveillance of internet users. It has stripped intermediary protections, making service providers — including a number of American tech companies — directly responsible for content generated by users. Fines, fees, and even expulsion await those companies who fail to comply with government demands that have escalated into the realm of impossibility.
The government’s latest IT-related bill imposes even more data retention demands and content removal imperatives. The shotgun approach affects providers who don’t collect the information the government wants, including (some) VPNs and encrypted communications providers like Signal, which doesn’t collect anything most governments want.
The proposal has faced some resistance. But the Indian government isn’t going to be stopped by legitimate complaints from the thousands of direct shareholders affected, never mind the 1.2 billion citizens the laws will affect indirectly.
On June 3, the government made a move that seemed to indicate it was responsive to this pushback. It pulled the draft cyber law, leading to the assumption it was going to amend it to remove the most ridiculous demands. Apparently, the government felt no need to retool the bill, re-releasing it the following Monday with zero changes.
The country last week released a draft of changes to its IT law that would require companies to “respect the rights accorded to the citizens under the constitution of India” and setting up a government panel to hear appeals of the companies’ content moderation decisions.
The government released the draft again on Monday without changes and solicited public comments within 30 days.
So, the government sees nothing wrong with the bill but is giving affected parties thirty days to have their complaints and comments ignored. A bizarre explanation was given for this retraction and unaltered re-release by the Indian government.
“A number of (technology) Intermediaries have acted in violation of constitutional rights of Indian citizens,” the government said, without naming any company or specific rights.
Truly a bizarre claim. The entity harming citizens’ constitutional rights the most is the Indian government. Third party service providers may possibly be in violation of data retention demands or other impositions by the government, but if they’re violating rights, it’s most likely because they’ve been told to do so by the government now claiming it’s everyone else doing the violating.
The “refreshed” version of the bill only makes things worse for tech companies providing internet services to Indian citizens. What little autonomy service providers enjoyed is gone now, as The Indian Express reports.
The Ministry of Electronics and IT has published a fresh draft of amendments to the Information Technology Rules, 2021 (IT Rules), which proposes the creation of government-appointed appeal committees that will be empowered to review and possibly reverse content moderation decisions taken by social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The Ministry also claimed that the rules will not “impact early stage or growth stage Indian companies or startups”.
There’s a carve out for local startups, but nothing changes for the biggest players in social media. These demands aren’t new. The Indian government added direct government control of content moderation earlier this year, apparently believing the rest of its demands/restrictions wouldn’t be enough to talk foreign service providers into cowering under the heel of its jackboot.
The government intermediaries imposed on social media companies are given more responsibility and more power under the new draft. They’re also given only so many hours to make the Mohdi government happy.
The fresh draft also proposes to place additional responsibilities on grievance officers. It suggests that if a user complains about content which is “patently false”, infringes copyright, and threatens the integrity of India, among other things, a grievance officer will have to expeditiously address it within 72 hours.
“Threatening the integrity of India” is the government’s loaded dice — a violation that will be defined almost solely by the hurt feelings of Mohdi and his minions. Any criticism could be defined as “threatening” the “integrity” of the people in power, because that’s literally the point of government criticism.
This is, and always has been, a censorship bill. The government may have legitimate national security concerns but this bill hardly even pretends to address those. Instead, it’s an effort that aims to force service providers to assist the Mohdi government in consolidating power and silence anyone who questions his actions or his willingness to turn India into just another autocracy.