Few days back, we saw a mass exodus from trinity of WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook to platforms such as Telegram and signal, with privacy concerns coming to the forefront as critical factor. We also witnessed full page ads in all daily nationals to what we can call it efforts to hide the leopard spots. In the down under in Australia, we witnessed a face-off between tech giants, Google, Facebook Vs the government on the revenue sharing for traditional media and the intermediary platforms (Google, Facebook). Finally, to close the circle, the new intermediary rules 2021, which seems desperate attempts to place an Iron fist on the emerging alternate medium. Now let us open the discussion on the new IT rules to understand the implications on individuals and collectively as a society.
We are living in the technological era. The mass scale adoption of technology has made our lives seamless and we too, as a society have undergone drastic transformation. The transformation is evident, in all spheres of life. Be it consumption pattern, our livelihood, our entertainment, etc. With the advent of technology, there was always debate, on human agency and role. There is always debate on the amount of Data produced and its sanctity. The debate is not just technical, but also has deeper ethical dimensions too.
Now in this discussion, let us restrict on how especially on the role of Media, disruption, and implications of it. With technology and especially social media at the forefront of media revolution, every single person is a potential journalist and a newsmaker, this has drastically changed the power dynamics or changed the ‘game’ of what we traditionally understood as media and influencer. Governments all over the World, have no clear roadmap on how to tame this new beast. The corporations, who wield infinite new power, are waiting to pounce and drill more oil. The citizens are trying to amplify their voices with new found platform to make their presence felt. This new normal situation is very important marker to decipher the new IT Rules. To cite an example, The Caravan is one of the leading voices who speak truth to the power. The other day, its twitter handle was locked out for more than 24 hours. This was an effort from the State to control the new beast. With this background, let us jump in to the New IT Intermediary rules.
IT Intermediary rules 2021, dilutes the Idea of Privacy and Freedom of expression
Firstly, recently passed Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 is an attempt to have iron fist over the new platforms. The idea of Privacy and Freedom of expression on the Internet has been severely dented in the. The Social media intermediaries and the Digital news and OTT Platforms are covered under the above act. Intermediaries are platforms who host the content. They don’t have their own curated content. They host content of the public. Few of the issues which seems troubling are:
Data Retention period:
The time period of Data retention has been doubled, and intermediaries are now required to preserve information for 180 days for investigative purposes. The data has to be preserved even after a user has deleted their accounts.
End to End encryption:
The end-to-end encryption of the users Used together, the government will break any type of end-to-end encryption to gain knowledge of who sent what message and also get to know its contents. Also, this specific requirement will break existing protocols for the deployment of end-to-end encryption that has been built through rigorous cybersecurity testing over the years. Grievance redressal mechanism etc. are some of the uncooked areas and needs further discussion.
Data Protection Law:
It is important to consider this requirement in the absence of a data protection law and any kind of oversight on how surveillance operates in India.
Social media verification:
Significant social media Intermediaries must also allow their users to “voluntarily” verify their accounts, using any appropriate mechanism, including the active Indian mobile number of the user. The significant social media intermediary shall also provide a visible and demonstrable mark identifying such verification [Rule 4(7)]. This could lead to a scenario where the voluntary becomes mandatory, as is the case with many other technologies which were introduced as “voluntary” but eventually made mandatory in an indirect manner.
There is altogether a parallel litmus test in forms of pending litigations, challenging the legality and adherence to tenets of Constitution. Just to point out one such instance, the litigation before the Supreme Court in Antony Clement Rubin v. Union of India (T.C. Civil No.189 of 2020), in Madras High Court on the subject of linking Aadhaar as verification document in the case of social media accounts. Excessive governmental control over digital news and OTT content and other such areas requires much deliberations and wide scale consultation with the experts and different stakeholders.
The OTT platforms face altogether a different ball game. They have been shunted with tiered grievance redressal mechanism. Excessive government control, delegation of power, Punitive measures and Emergency blocking of powers.
In this milieu, there are lot of apprehensions on the recent Information technology Rules,2021. We feel this act puts us on a slippery path, which slides towards Overarching Surveillance and Surveillance state. Thus, broad based consultations and deliberations around it is the first step in making an egalitarian rule. We feel civil society to constantly engage in dialogue on the subject of Digital privacy and Freedom of expression, vital part of Public discourse and deliberations. And finally,
The Big Picture:
Aadhar, a dream project of inclusion and making India a digital power has fallen flat on the face. The welfare façade is empirically highlighted in the book, The Aadhar debate, by Ritika khera. The effort to have a digital database to drill in and feed the monster of “Surveillance capitalism” as Shoshana Zuboff, calls the new Digital beast. The need of the hour is to make our Digital ecosystem more robust, the apprehension of Surveillance state, Orwellian society doesn’t seem a distant future on the present trajectory. The hijacking of science by technology has also adverse effects on psyche of human being, which is being manifested in the form of hacked humans. I will surely pick this thread later in my coming piece. To put it in a nutshell, With the society slipping slowly into Authoritarian tendencies, freedom of expression and right to privacy are basic human rights of every individual which is getting diluted by the day and the society getting metamorphosized into a walled garden, thus the NEW it rules, has put humanity at the conundrum and the time for action is now!