Govt mulls changes to IT Act to force internet cos trace origin of unlawful content.

The government is considering changes in the IT Act to force internet, chat and social media companies to trace and identify people behind objectionable and unlawful content posted or spread over the internet.


The move, which was mulled during a meeting with internet companies and the IT ministry, will impact platforms that promise encryption and enhanced privacy to users. It will result in serious trouble for many companies, the most prominent being instant messenger WhatsApp, which has so far refused to pay heed to the government’s request to identify people behind fake news.

The draft — IT [Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules], 2018 — also proposes that any online company that has more than 50 lakh users in India should be incorporated within the country, have a permanent registered office, and appoint a nodal person of contact.

It says that when asked through a lawful order, the intermediary (internet company) should, within 72 hours of communication, provide information and assistance to government agencies. These should be done in cases related to the country’s security or cybersecurity; or during investigation or detection or prosecution or prevention of an offence.

“Any such request can be made in writing or through electronic means stating clearly the purpose of seeking such information or any such assistance. The intermediary shall enable tracing out of such originator of information on its platform as may be required by government agencies that are legally authorised,” the draft — which seeks comments till January 15 — says.

Ministry officials claim that the step is being initiated after a series of lynching incidents due to the spread of fake news. The government had requested WhatsApp to trace the origins of the people spreading such fake news, but the Facebook-owned company has said it is unable to do so as the messaging on the platform remains encrypted.

The government now plans to make changes to Section 79 of the IT Act to make it difficult for companies to refuse such requests. It follows an assurance made by IT and law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in the Rajya Sabha where he said that the government will strengthen the legal framework around fake news and make social media platforms “accountable under the law”.

The draft also proposes that after receiving a request from the government, the company shall preserve the objectionable information and associated records for at least 180 days for investigation purposes, “or for such longer period as may be required by the court or by government agencies”.

Also, it says that the companies should 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.

The draft also says that also companies should inform users to not host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update or share any information that is objectionable and unlawful. These would include content that is “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, pedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money-laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever.” Interestingly, it also proposes a censure on content around smoking or drinking in the name of public health. So, content not allowed will include that which engages in “promotion of cigarettes or any other tobacco products or consumption of intoxicant including alcohol and electronic nicotine delivery system”. (Source: The Times of India)

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