Does India need to constantly evolve its IT laws?

Image credit: The Hindu

India is a nation heavily invested in technology with internet playing a major role in digital economy and will need to constantly evolve its laws and “get more modern laws” around newer user harms surfacing in the online world, Minister of State for IT of India, Rajeev Chandrasekhar said speaking at ‘Times Now Summit 2021’.

Digital platforms, be it big or small, need to abide by the laws and merely citing ‘algorithms’ cannot let intermediaries “off the hook” if that algorithm violates or infringes on fundamental rights of Indian citizens, Chandrasekhar said.

The minister explained that regardless of the size and scale of a digital platform, “some things in India are absolutely non-negotiable. Regardless of who you are, you are a big platform, small platform, new platform or old platform. Some things in India are absolutely non-negotiable,” the minister said.

Article 14, 19, and 21 are fundamental rights guaranteed to Indian citizens, and “just by saying, I have an algorithm, doesn’t let you off the hook, if that algorithm violates or infringes on the fundamental rights of an Indian citizen”, Chandrasekhar added.

On whether there will be new laws to hold big tech platforms more accountable, in a stringent manner, Chandrasekhar said: “It is absolutely clear in my mind that as a nation that is heavily invested in technology for whom the internet is a big part of our digital economy, we will need to evolve our laws and we will need to get more modern laws especially around what you’re referring to, which is the issue of user harm,” a PTI report added.

Cyber Threat

If a user is harmed by another user online or through tacit inaction of an intermediary, such issues need to be legislated and dealt with. “So, I can’t say when there will be a new law but it seems to me commonsensical, both of us can agree that there has to be a new law at some point in the future,” the minister said.

The report further added that for India, the internet represents not just transformation of governance, and expanding of the digital economy, but also a massive opportunity for entrepreneurs, jobs and enterprises. “I think the world is coming to terms with the fact, as is India, that if the internet should remain open, meaning free from any anti-competitive influences, should be safe and trusted by the consumers and intermediaries are accountable to the users, then some form of rules and rules of the game have to come into place,” the minister said.

IT Rules

The new IT rules, which were enforced this year, have made platforms more accountable to users. “I think what we have done is a good framework of intermediary rules, which is that anybody today who is aggrieved by the conduct of an intermediary, has the right to hold them to account by writing a letter or email, raising the grievance with a grievance officer. And, it is obligatory on the part of those platforms to respond to that grievance,” he said.

The state has little role in that, unless the grievance officer is not satisfactorily addressing the complaint raised by the consumer.

On whether the laws need to be strengthened further to increase the accountability of intermediaries in sync with that of traditional media, the minister noted that the Information Technology Act, used to legislate the internet, dates back to 2000, with the last amendment in 2008.

“And, it still does not have any reference to the internet in the whole Act. It talks about data transmission and so on, so forth. So, it seems to me commonsensical that the country, and we are a global power in technology, we will evolve to a new law,” he pointed out.

He further added that newer instances of user harm and criminalities in the online world are coming to fore every day. The new IT rules are thus aimed at ensuring that the internet remains open, safe and trusted. “I have made it clear that the government has no intention of getting into anything to do with the internet and intermediaries’ creative work, innovation and investment. We have no role, except to ensure that the internet always remains open.”

‘Safety and trust’ are important in the Indian context given aspects such as online education, delivery of subsidies online, and use of the internet by women, children, and the elderly. “So, for us, the internet cannot be just this open place where safety and trust is not an essential attribute. We seek that from the intermediaries that operate on the internet,” according to the minister.

Accountability is also a key aspect since millions of users are on digital platforms. “And, these users for years have had no recourse for the problem, whether it’s discrimination, whether it’s persecution, trolling, bullying, cyberbullying. It is important that balance be brought and that is what the rules have done. We have not gone into anything that trespasses into Article 21. The data protection, we have actually strengthened that, Article 19 (freedom of expression) and Article 14 we are saying we stand by those,” he added.

The minister explained that the government is committed to safeguarding constitutional rights of citizens, the report pointed out.

The Internet had no rules and no obligations cast on intermediaries for almost a decade, and now, when there is a “reset” and consumers are seeking accountability, there will be certain “pushback”, Chandrasekhar said.

“They will push it back and the spin will be that this is about government control. This is about state control. But, I can assure you and your audience that this government is committed to keeping the internet open, it is only interested in ensuring the internet remains safe, trusted and accountable to its users,” he said.

Social media and digital platforms have transformative power to do good, connecting and enabling people to communicate but have also seen negative influences, and instances of user harm.

“So, it is an evolution for these intermediaries to go from a belief that the cyberspace has no jurisdiction, no laws, to one where countries are cooperating in creating a set of rules that make sure the cyberspace is no different from the real world. You can’t have cyberspace be the Wild West where no rules or no laws apply,” he added.

He further explained that the reaction or resistance to rules in certain quarters is due to the new normal that has been drawn up by India, and many countries.

“There was a belief that cyberspace was a space where laws did not extend to, and since the laws are now beginning to come there, there is a natural reaction saying look, all these years I was not asked to account to anybody, including to my users. And, now suddenly, I have to reply to all of these letters,” he said.

“But, we must understand that in any democracy today, governments do have the right to have lawful interception in matters where national security is at risk and terrorists are on the prowl. So, I don’t think we should assume that suddenly things have changed. We had the right to lawful interception for decades in this country,” he said.

Unless there is proof of evidence of an interception done by the state, “I can frame these accusations around and it will make for a nice copy, clickbait couple of digital stories online. But, it remains that, just remains a story,” he said.

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