By Gyan Pathak
With announcement of the new rules, Narendra Modi government has effectively placed itself as gatekeeper and supreme arbitrator of digital content. Even conscience and ethics of an individual, group, or society will have to conform to the new government mechanism which will give direction to the digital media outlets as to what content is fit to appear in the digital platforms, and what they will require to remove under the direction of the government within a given timeframe. Not only that, the new rules would decide what is ‘fit to think’ on a given issue, otherwise it may attract ‘banning orders’ from the government in the name of “the sovereignty and integrity of India” and can be perceived as threatening the national security, or even seditious “effecting disaffection” for the government.
It’s an alarming situation that the Modi government could not overcome its unreasonable and extreme desire to control the content in media outlets. Psychologically speaking, such a situation comes in the life of a person when one starts taking offence at even any hint against ones desires, even when they are unreasonable and hurting to others. The government’s desire to regulate media content is an open secret because it wants to prevent all the “embarrassing truth” from appearing in media. We have already seen how many of the respected journalists are booked even under section 124 A of the IPC on the charges of “effecting disaffection” against the government. One cannot understand how it is possible to remains affectionate with the ruling establishment if it goes on hurting public sentiments and interests in several ways while refusing to even listen to the public grievances at the same time?
The purpose of the new rules and guidelines are officially called a “soft touch progressive institutional mechanism with level-playing field”. It has featured a Code of Ethics and a three-tier grievance redressal framework for new sites and OTT platforms. Ironically, the Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, claimed that the rules would empower users of social media, which in reality it empowers the government and its official with even unbridled power. It is for the first time, the government of India has come with draconian provisions to regulate digital news organizations, social media platforms and OTT streaming services like Netflix, Youtube, etc.
Before going to the details about the other provisions of the rules and guidelines one must take note of the contents that the Modi government, officials, influential politicians, and other big people have been trying all along to get removed from digital platforms. Let us take examples first from the Google. The search engine has been increasingly receiving content removal request from June 30, 2016. Google received 243 requests for removal that rose to its highest 1,284 on December 31, 2018. Removal requests stood at 890 on June 30, 2020. The total items requested to be removed as on June 30, 2019 were 4,395; on December 31, 2019 was 7,029; and on June 30, 2020, was 5,359.
One of the answers as to why the government have come with the present rules may be guesses as per the declaration of Google, that says, “there are many reasons we may not have removed content in response to a request, for instance, some requests may not be specific enough for us to know what the government wanted us to remove. … Note that not all court orders included with requests directly compel Google to take action”. A total of 43.6 per cent of the content were legally removed. From January 2020 to June 2020, largest number of removal requests were related to defamation which were about 26 per cent, followed by national security 18 per cent, and privacy and security 14 per cent. Removal requests for hate speech was 7 per cent, religious offence 5 per cent, and obscenity and nudity 2 per cent. You can be surprised to know that adult content removal request were only 3 in numbers which was almost zero per cent. It shows the removal request preferences. New rules could not achieve the removal of all the harmful content from the digital platforms, since it has never been the preference of our government. The question can be asked if the Modi government wants put brake on all harmful content by changing its preferences or only want to protect the interest of the ruling establishment?
It may also be mentioned that content on digital platforms is regulated by two actions – removal and blocking. Some governments and government agencies choose to block specific contents in their jurisdiction. Google says, “the content removal numbers we’ve reported do not include any data on government-mandated service blockages”. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology have already been making requests for removal under section 69 A of the IT Act, 2000, and are complied with wherever reasonable. However, the new rules gives unbridled power to the government and the digital platforms would need to comply with, even when the orders would violate other rules and laws of the land, such as relating to freedom of speech and thought, and the very principles of justice and democracy.
Even before the announcement of the new rules, we have no means to know as to what is happening between the government and the digital platforms. Google says, “due to confidentiality restrictions mandated by section 69 A, we are unable to provide details about the content at issue or actions taken by Google”. However, on several other issues Google has given information about removal request and actions.
During COVID-19 pandemic, Indian law enforcement agencies made removal of 173 YouTube contents before June 2020. The contents ranged from conspiracy theories and religious hate speech related to COVID-19 to news reports and criticism of the authorities’ handling the pandemic. Google removed 14 of them and restricted access to 30 others the decision of which was based on “cited local laws”. Google refused to remove 10 of them while requested the government to have more information regarding 106 items. Requests were also made to remove contents relating to protests and agitations against the government policies and decisions.
There are also several dangers of implementing the new rules such as one mentioned by the Google which received even request for removal of reputable news articles reporting about alleged involvement in scam cases, and even news clips that showed a senior police officer slapping an elderly man which was claimed damaging the image of the police. An IPS officer has even made a request to remove news articles relating to his sexual misconduct with a tribal woman, which Google did not remove from appearing in search results. Google also did not remove content relating to a political leader that associated him with corrupt financial practices. Can one believe that Google also received request from police to remove content about a politician’s sex scandal, including photographs? Google did not remove it.
The other digital media platforms like twitter, facebook, etc have also been facing such pressures for removal of contents that actually exposes the wrongdoings of the powerful and the influential but in not against the national interest. It is where the danger lies in implementing the new rules and guidelines. The rules direct the contents to be classified into five categories and seeks to make the platform accountable for “misuse and abuse”, and appoint executives to “coordinate with law enforcement” agencies. It is just an effort to policing the “Digital Platforms” which may ultimately affect not only the “right to present the truth” but also “right to think independently of the line of the ruling establishment”. All efforts of the people of curbing the “misuse and abuse” of power through media would be stifled and the views of ruling establishment will dominate. (IPA Service)