Government's plans to bring changes in IT rules for greater scrutiny of social media and online platforms has raised concerns with IT and law experts who say the amendments may allow authorities to seek user data, invade privacy and free speech.
One of the amendments being mulled in the IT intermediary rules will require these platforms to enable tracing out of such originators of information as needed by government agencies that are legally authorised.
The controversial area has marked a prolonged tug-of-war between the Centre and WhatsApp, following incidents of mob-violence incited by rumours floating on the popular messaging app.
The proposed changes in rules that will place social media platforms under lens, also require them to deploy tools to "identify" and curb unlawful content as well as follow stricter due-diligence practices.
When contacted, cyber law expert Pavan Duggal said that some of the changes were akin to India's own anti-encryption law.
Duggal added that the proposed amendments would clarify law for intermediaries, a grey area thus far, and help reiterate applicability of cyber laws to entities located outside India. But a clause that requires intermediaries with over 50 lakh users in India to have a permanent registered office here and appoint a nodal officer for round-the-clock coordination with law enforcement agencies, is "arbitrary" and "not connected to the ground reality", Duggal said adding that it tends to exclude a large universe of firms that may have lower user base.
Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist, opined that the changes mooted to the IT Act are "harmful" for citizens, democracy and free speech.
The requirement for platforms to proactively take down content will lead to censorship of speech, Pahwa added.
"The amendments are also contrary to the spirit of section 79 of the IT Act, which was created to provide safe harbour to intermediaries, which are enablers of speech and commerce. Also, any government order for traceability must be backed by a judicial order, else it will enable unrestricted surveillance of citizens," he said.
Another industry expert who did not wish to be named, said that the term "unlawful information or content" has not been defined, and even conditions proposed for platforms that have over 50 lakh users, may be open to interpretation.
Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) President Rajesh Charria declined to comment on the clauses that have been proposed but said that the executive council of the association will meet later this week to study the planned amendments.
The IT ministry officials held a meeting last week with senior executives of Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other companies to discuss the proposed changes in the Information Technology (IT) rules, and the debate has now been opened up for a wider public feedback by January 15.
On Monday, the government asserted that it is committed to freedom of speech and expression and privacy of its citizens, amid criticism from industry observers over larger implications of the amendments for citizens' privacy and principles of free speech, and even possibility of censorship.
According to the draft amendment proposed to the IT rules: "The intermediary (social media platform) shall deploy technology-based automated tools or appropriate mechanisms, with appropriate controls for proactively identifying and removing or disabling public access to unlawful information or content."
Another change proposed is that the platforms would have to inform its users to refrain from hosting, uploading or sharing any content that is blasphemous, obscene, defamatory, "hateful or racially, ethnically objectionable".
Users would be asked to guard against hosting or sharing information that violates any law, deceives or misleads receivers about the origin of messages that are grossly offensive or menacing in nature, or those which threaten national security.
E-mails sent by PTI to social media platforms, including Google, Facebook and WhatsApp seeking comments on their discussions with the government remained unanswered.
In its statement on Monday, the IT ministry highlighted that government does not regulate content appearing on social network platforms, although these companies are required to ensure that their platforms are not used to commit and provoke terrorism, extremism, violence and crime. It also cited recent instances of misuse of social media by criminals and anti-national elements that have brought new challenges to law enforcement agencies.
As per the proposals, the intermediary -- after a court order is communicated or being alerted by a government agency -- will have to remove or disable access "as far as possible immediately, but in no case later than 24 hours".
"When required by lawful order, the intermediary shall within 72 hours of communication, provide such information or assistance as asked for by any government agency or assistance concerning security of state or cyber security..." as per the draft.