New Delhi: The Broadband India Forum, a think tank, has warned against the Union government having power to block online content under the proposed Digital India Bill, 2023.
The Bill will replace the Information Technology Act, 2000. Under Section 69A of the Act, the government has power to issue directions for blocking for public access of any information through any computer resource. The government can cite reasons like the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence, security, friendly relations with foreign states and public order behind the decision.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, in its note on the Bill has said that the IT Act lacks “distinct regulatory approaches for harmful and illegal content.”
Its draft has not been prepared yet.
The BIF, reports Financial Express, represents companies like Google, Meta, Amazon and Microsoft. In the report, jointly written with xKDR Forum, a non-profit research organisation, it has called for an independent and neutral body to adjudicate on blocking requests in a transparent manner.
The BIF report says that blocking orders issued to intermediaries – social media platforms, internet services providers and others – by the government is censorship and directly affects the rights of the content creator to freely express opinion and that of the public to receive information.
The government recently announced the formation of Grievance Appellate Committees (GACs) which became operational on March 1, 2023, where intermediaries can file appeals against the decisions of the Grievance Redressal Officer of platforms or their failure to act on complaints made to them.
Although noble in concept, in their analysis for The Wire, Prateek Waghre and Tejasi Panjiar write, “Any faith in the GACs also fails to consider that rather than an independent adjudication mechanism, it would be subservient to the Union government.”
The BIF report notes that the government had asked Twitter to take down 248 tweets in 2017 but by 2020, the number had risen to 10,000.
News reports note how the government has periodically blocked certain YouTube channels and mobile apps.
Recently, the government asked YouTube and Twitter to take down videos and links to a BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
“In any event, the explosion of content on the Internet requires improved state capacity to make correct, time-sensitive decisions regarding blocking online content. Currently, however, the legal framework lacks any clear accountability standards that allow us to assess whether the procedural safeguards have proved effective,” the report said, according to FE.