MUMBAI: Bharti Airtel and VodafoneIdea, represented by Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), have opposed the government’s proposed amendments to the intermediary guidelines and to regulate internet platforms in order to curb fake news, terming them “vague” and ones which can violate privacy of users.
The stance of India’s two older telcos was in sharp contrast to those of rival Reliance Jio, which had defended the government saying it should ignore such protests. It had also said that platforms should not be allowed to become conduits to unlawful activities that incite hatred and spark terrorism and extremism.
But COAI, an industry association of mobile service providers, said the proposed changes “could be detrimental to citizens, democracy and free speech”.
In its response to amendments proposed by the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY), COAI said that the “lack of clarity in relation to the obligations under the Intermediary Guidelines could lead to inadvertent non-compliance resulting in arbitrary prosecution”.
The vagueness of these guidelines “could also drive several intermediaries out of business in India and preclude the possibility of new intermediaries developing in the future”, said the industry body, in a letter to the government.
MeitY proposes to amend Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act. The IT Act currently provides for a legal shield for technology intermediaries. In December, draft amendments to the IT Act rules, first notified in 2011, mandated companies to trace and report the origin of messages within 72 hours of receiving a complaint from law enforcement agencies. They also sought to “disable access” within 24 hours to content deemed defamatory or against national security and other clauses under Article 19 (2) of the constitution.
COAI said that the timeline of 72 hours under the new recommendations was “arbitrary” and does not give the companies due time to collate review and respond to any requests.
The body said the draft recommendations undermine security and privacy of communications, are ambiguous on which agencies are allowed to demand information, pose technical challenges and are inconsistent.
It also highlighted that provision for information requests already exists and the new set of amendments needs to be in sync with existing regulations of the telecom department.
The Draft Rules propose intermediaries take down content upon a court order or being notified by the appropriate government or its agency within 24 hours, where the content pertains to the restrictions under Article 19(2) of the constitution. The Rules also extend the period of time that the information must be stored for, and even authorise government agencies to extend it further.
COAI has called out the deadline as “unreasonable”. The industry body said the extension of data storage period “would increase legal uncertainty and confront companies with new financial, logistical and technical challenges”.
The lobbying group also warned that while court orders can take down content as per the new guidelines, one needs to be clear that “the regulations are not misused to enable individuals / corporates to obtain court orders which benefits their commercial activity and ensure compliance… through internet service providers (ISPs)”.
On the amendment mandating that intermediaries be proactive in identifying, monitoring and filtering content through automated tools, COAI said it could violate the fundamental right to privacy.
“This creates a legal incentive for intermediaries to engage in overbearing censoring of content in order to retain legal immunity, thereby potentially censoring lawful content and violating the privacy of users,” the body said.
“The proposed amendment is in contradiction of the very definition of intermediaries under the IT Act, as intermediaries are only making available a communication link over which the information of the users is transmitted or temporarily stored/hosted,” it said.