Amid ongoing litigation over IT rules, the webinar touched on several key issues such as constitutionality, national security, and the role of parents in censoring OTT content.
While the government says its interdepartmental committee would mostly hear appeals against unresolved complaints about IT rules across news and streaming services, it could also review cases on its own. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) deputy secretary, Vikram Sahay, said in a webinar on Monday that the Interdepartmental Tier 3 Committee (IDC) at the government level is responsible for the administration of the rules for information technology (intermediary liability and code of ethics for digital Media) is responsible in 2021, would usually only listen to cases that were not resolved in the lower two levels, they would advise on cases that were submitted to them directly by other ministries, and make recommendations to the MIB as to whether a warning or blocking “Censorship or other such consequences are fine,” said Sahay.
The webinar comes at a time when news and streaming organizations are trying to understand how the rules affect them. News organizations came to the table with questions for the MIB. The rules are being challenged by several news organizations including The Wire, The Quint, The Leaflet, and the Digital News Publishers Association, who have called the legislation unconstitutional and a government violation in multiple hearings in the High Court.
Streaming services and news organizations Those covered by IT rules must appoint a complaints officer and undergo a three-tier grievance mechanism with the government at the top and a self-regulatory authority in the middle that can resolve complaints about complaints addressed directly to publishers. They must also provide the government with basic information about their activities. The rules give the government the power to order the removal or suspension of content if it believes it is illegal or may cause public harm. The revelation that the government would directly examine complaints filed at their level (rather than referring them to Level 1) increases the possibility of government abuse and censorship.
Key takeaways from the webinar
- OTT content has an “element of privacy”: Unlike theater content, where multiple people go to a theater and watch a movie together, content on streaming services is a “direct” link between publishers and viewers, and there is an element of privacy, Sahay said. Therefore, prior censorship for OTT content is not guaranteed.
- National security: In the “rarest rare” cases, Sahay said, if the government is unable to bring the case to the IDC, an emergency order will be issued that is subject to review.
- Regarding deadlines and constitutionality: Commenting on the allegations that the deadlines for compliance with the rules were too short, Sahay said the government will continue consultations on the matter in order to find a way forward. He responded similarly to a suggestion from a journalism professor who said that the IDC should have the last word to allay fears of government overwhelming power, unlike the MIB: He said the government would see what it would do with the proposals would do.
- Parents’ responsibility: Regarding OTT content, Sahay said: “Parents have just as much responsibility as the OTT player to watch what their children see.” The streaming operators are obliged under the rules, an age limit mechanism and age-based classifications for everyone develop their content.
- Regarding ratings for television content: A stakeholder asked a question about the classification of content that has already been shown on television. Sahay said that content that has already been shown in cinemas shouldn’t be a huge issue with certification as it is already rated by the Central Board of Film Certification. “Only if there is foreign content that has never been shown in India before is self-certification required,” he said.
- No app required: A TV news channel asked a question about IT compliance because its channel only had a Facebook presence. Sahay said such companies would not have to create an app and instead provide their complaint resolution details on whatever social media platforms they are on.
- Confirmation of the information that will be provided in the “coming week”: Organizations that have submitted information about their data to the MIB under the rules will receive confirmation from the government in the coming week, Sahay said. Forms that do not mention an SRB are accepted. Sahay said, adding that such entities can send another proxy after joining such a body.
Ongoing litigation against IT rules
The following cases are currently pending in various higher courts to challenge provisions of the IT rules. The government has requested that these cases be referred to the Supreme Court.
- Digital News Publishers Association & anr v. Union of India & anr: Madras Supreme Court, petition.
- TM Krishna v. Union of India & anr: Hearing scheduled for July 14th. Petition.
- The News Broadcasters Association against the Department of Electronics and Information Technology: Kerala High Court, suspension of coercive measures granted.
- Foundation for Independent Journalism vs. Union of India: Delhi High Court petition denied twice.
- Live Law Media Private Limited & ors v Union of India & anr: Kerala High Court, petition, suspension of coercive measures granted.
- Sanjay Kumar Singh v. Union of India & ors: Delhi High Court, petition marked FIJ v. UoI.
- Quint Digital Media Limited & anr v. Union of India & anr: Delhi High Court, petition marked FIJ v. UoI.
- Press Trust of India v. Union of India & anr: Delhi High Court, petition marked FIJ v. UoI.
- AGIJ Promotion of Nineteenonea Media Pvt Ltd & anr against Union of India & anr: Bombay High Court, petition, trial alleged postponed with regard to the transfer application.