Centre’s new rules to regulate digital space were much-needed to ensure that online platforms are subject to the law of the land

Balancing the need for regulation to keep out obnoxious online content that promotes violence and vulgarity with the need to preserve our constitutional values and freedom of expression is at the core of the new rules which have been formulated by the Union government to address concerns regarding new media.

The policy has tried to create the much-needed level-playing field between online news platforms and print media on the one hand and online and television news media on the other. It has also tried to bring online news portals within the ambit of the code of ethics that governs print media. These include the norms of journalistic conduct drawn up by the Press Council Act and the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Rules, 1994. This was long overdue because of the recklessness and irresponsibility that is on display on some of these platforms.

Similarly, while the cinema industry has a film certification agency with oversight responsibilities, OTT platforms have none. However, in order to ensure artistic freedom, the government has proposed self-regulation and has said that the OTT entities should get together, evolve a code and come up with content classification so that a mechanism is evolved to preclude non-adults from viewing adult content. They must get down to do it. The grievance redressal mechanism thought of is three-tier, with the publishers and self-regulating bodies being the first two. The third tier is the central government oversight committee. The policy proposed requires publishers to appoint grievance redressal officers and ensure a time-bound acknowledgement and disposal of grievances. Then, there can be a self-regulating body headed by a retired judge.

Online platforms are wary of rules that seek verification of accounts, access control etc, but these issues need to be resolved within the framework of India’s laws. For example, while mainstream media is conscious of provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that deal with the promotion of violence, enmity among communities, defamation etc, the content on online platforms seems to be oblivious of all this. The vulgar comments posted on social media about women professionals in media or other fields and the inability of the Indian state to deal with such behaviour makes one wonder whether the IPC is even applicable in cyberspace.

The Indian digital and OTT players can draw lessons from the concerted action taken by digital companies in Australia, which have come together and drawn up a code to deal with fake news and disinformation. This is called the Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation and was released only recently by the Digital Industry Group.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has welcomed the initiative and said that more than two-thirds of Australians were concerned about “what is real or fake on the internet”. In response, the ACMA says that digital platforms agreed to a self-regulatory code “to provide safeguards against serious harms arising from the spread of dis-and misinformation”. Some of the actions promised by the digital platforms include disabling accounts and removal of content.

In the UK, the government is all set to bring in a law to make online companies responsible for harmful content and also to punish companies that fail to remove such content. The aim of the proposed “Online Safety Bill” is to protect internet users and deal firmly with platforms that promote violence, terrorist material, child abuse, cyber bullying, etc. Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden was quoted as saying, “I’m unabashedly pro-tech but that can’t mean a tech free-for-all”. This, in a sense, sums up the current mood on this issue across democracies. In the UK, self-regulation governs print media and private television and radio are regulated by the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority as provided by a statute.

As regards the two ministers who announced the government’s guidelines — Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar — it should not be forgotten that both of them are the heroes of what is called the “Second Freedom Struggle”. They fought against the dreaded Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s and suffered incarceration so that the people got back their Constitution and democracy. Obviously, their commitment to basic democratic values has and will continue to influence their policy formulations vis-à-vis media regulation.

Finally, a word about the framework within which companies should operate in India. As the Union Minister for Information Technology, Prasad said they must function with the laws of the land. This is non-negotiable. In recent times, Twitter has tried to define freedom of expression and even claimed that it seeks to protect the freedom of expression of Indians. “Freedom of expression” is embedded in the chapter on fundamental rights in our Constitution and it is circumscribed by what are called “reasonable restrictions”. These are in place because India is a vibrant democracy and the most diverse society in the world with many social, political and economic complexities. That is why India’s founding fathers had, with great intuition and foresight, introduced a caveat vis-à-vis freedom of expression, so that constitutional rights promote internal peace and harmony. What these freedoms are and what these restrictions are have been defined by our Supreme Court in innumerable cases and the law as laid down by India’s apex court is the law of the land. We do not want some private international companies to assume the role of some supra courts and put their own spin on our Constitution.

The writer is a former chairperson of Prasar Bharati and a scholar of constitutional and media studies

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