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Global coalition urges India to withdraw proposed amendments to Intermediary Guidelines

The government’s proposed amendments on intermediary liability won’t fix disinformation, but will harm digital security and human rights, the coalition warns

Today, a global coalition of civil society and technology experts sent a joint letter to the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, asking the Government of India to withdraw the draft amendments proposed to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules.

Released publicly at the end of December last year, reportedly after private consultations with some technology firms, the proposed amendments would modify the “Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011” (Intermediary Guidelines), issued under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Ministry officials have stated that the amendments have been framed in response to a debate last year in the Indian Parliament on “Misuse of Social Media platforms and spreading of Fake News.”

Any entity, person or platform, which receives, stores, processes, or transmits electronic information on behalf of another is considered an intermediary under the Information Technology Act in India. This means that social media platforms, cloud services, internet service providers, email service providers, etc., would all fall under the definition of an intermediary. If an intermediary seeks to avail itself of a “safe harbor” from liability for actions that the intermediary’s users take, the intermediary must fulfill the requirements of and comply with the Intermediary Guidelines. In an intermediary fails to meet these requirements or does not comply, it becomes liable for the actions of the users of its services.

Today’s letter, signed by an international coalition of 31 organizations and individuals, explains how the proposed amendments threaten fundamental rights and the space for a free internet, while not addressing the problems that the Ministry aims to resolve. A key concern is the requirement for intermediaries to “enable tracing out of such originator” of content that an intermediary hosts, which could lead to demands that providers weaken the security features of their products and services. This threat to privacy would in turn endanger free expression.

The signatories note that “the Government of India has repeatedly stated that it seeks to protect fundamental rights and internet freedom, and these amendments are inconsistent with those important goals.”

The global coalition, through the letter, requests that the Government of India withdraw the proposed amendments to the Intermediary Guidelines, and start a fresh consultation process to establish a rights-respecting framework in India, after the formation of the government post-elections.   

“The Indian government has stated that it aims to address the threats posed by disinformation online, such as incitement of riots, but its over-broad response creates new risks to Indian citizens and technology users beyond the country’s borders. The proposed amendments would enable the Indian government to demand actions by tech companies that would undermine digital security, and threaten users’ privacy and free expression. The government should withdraw its current proposal and develop a rights-respecting alternative that is tailored to address the specific actual harms it seeks to prevent,” said Sharon Bradford Franklin, Director of Surveillance & Cybersecurity Policy, New America’s Open Technology Institute.

“With India going to general elections in the next month, and the model code of conduct against new policy decision in place, the government must pause and withdraw the proposed amendments. India, as the world’s largest democracy, must work toward protecting the rights of its citizens and establish a regulatory regime which protects and empowers the fundamental rights of free expression and privacy. The amendment currently would not only erode digital security, but would also harm the human rights of users globally,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Policy Director and Senior International Counsel at Access Now.