New Delhi: More than a dozen privacy and digital think tanks from across the world have banded together to publish an open letter calling for the end of ‘digital censorship’ in India.
The letter, signed by 14 not-for-profits and published on Friday, called upon the government to suspend the implementation of India’s new IT rules, which came into effect last month. These include organisations like Electronics Frontier Foundation, Access Now, Article 19, Human Rights Watch, Internet Sans Frontières and Internet Society.
The letter asked the government to make public its blocking orders for websites and social media accounts along with reasons for the blocking. India should commit to not using these orders, and rule-making powers, to curtail the rights to free speech, access to information and privacy, it urged.
There are “troubling indicators that the Indian Government, which has already been criticised for silencing protests, criminalising dissent, and blocking access to the internet, will use the expanded powers under the new intermediary rules…to restrict online content, and chill free expression and access to information,” according to the letter.
ET has reviewed a copy of the letter.
The Association for Progressive Communications, Centre for Democracy and Technology, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Dangerous Speech Project, International Commission of Jurists, Mnemonic, OpenNet and Reporters Without Borders, are its other signatories.
India notified the guidelines in February and gave those social media platforms with over 5 million users in the country three months to comply. The rules, which apply to companies such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, came into effect on May 25. It mandates online platforms to have a physical office in India, appoint key personnel to handle user grievances and take down notices from the government, along with giving them a timeline of 24 hours to remove content and 72 hours to respond with information. Platforms with end-to-end encryption like WhatsApp are required to trace the origin of messages if the investigative agencies require them to.
WhatsApp has challenged the traceability mandate in Delhi High Court, while Google has asked the courts to exempt its search engine from being classified as a significant social media intermediary.
“Web censorship and user data orders from the Government of India are not issued under judicial or independent administrative process; instead, they come from the unilateral dictates of executive authorities. Indian Government authorities have refused to publish any of the orders they are issuing to technology firms, asserting a broad claim of secrecy, and denying requests under India’s Right to Information Act,” it said.
The letter also highlighted that the regulatory framework for digital news media also grants the government an “unprecedented, impermissible and unconstitutional” level of control over online news. “The rules are beyond the scope of what the executive is authorised to do under current law,” it said.
The liabilities on employees of the platforms, in case of non-compliance, serve to intimidate intermediaries and their employees into over-complying with overbroad mandates, to the detriment of users’ rights, the letter said.
It called upon technology companies and internet platforms operating in India to “implement effective measures to protect privacy, free expression and security, and push back on overbroad, unlawful requests and regulatory mandates.”