Anti-trafficking Bill may lead to censorship

Posted by Swaraj Barooah and Gurshabad Grover at Jul 24, 2018 09:00 PM |
There are a few problematic provisions in the proposed legislation—it may severely impact freedom of expression.

The article was published in Livemint on July 24, 2018.

The legislative business of the monsoon session of Parliament kicked off on 18 July with the introduction of the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018, in the Lok Sabha. The intention of the Union government is to “make India a leader among South Asian countries to combat trafficking” through the passage of this Bill. Good intentions aside, there are a few problematic provisions in the proposed legislation, which may severely impact freedom of expression.

For instance, Section 36 of the Bill, which aims to prescribe punishment for the promotion or facilitation of trafficking, proposes a minimum three-year sentence for producing, publishing, broadcasting or distributing any type of material that promotes trafficking or exploitation. An attentive reading of the provision, however, reveals that it has been worded loosely enough to risk criminalizing many unrelated activities as well.

The phrase “any propaganda material that promotes trafficking of person or exploitation of a trafficked person in any manner” has wide amplitude, and many unconnected or even well-intentioned actions can be construed to come within its ambit as the Bill does not define what constitutes “promotion”. For example, in moralistic eyes, any sexual content online could be seen as promoting prurient interests, and thus also promoting trafficking.

Rather than imposing a rigorous standard of actual and direct nexus with the act of trafficking or exploitation, a vaguer standard which includes potentially unprovable causality, including by actors who may be completely unaware of such activity, is imposed. This opens the doors to using this provision for censorship and imposes a chilling effect on any literary or artistic work which may engage with sensitive topics, such as trafficking of women.

In the past, governments have been keen to restrict access to online escort services and pornography. In June 2016, the Union government banned 240 escort sites for obscenity even though it cannot do that under Section 69A or Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, or Section 8 of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. In July 2015, the government asked internet service providers (ISPs) to block 857 pornography websites sites on grounds of outraging “morality” and “decency”, but later rescinded the order after widespread criticism. If historical record is any indication, Section 36 in this present Bill will legitimize such acts of censorship.

Section 39 proposes an even weaker standard for criminal acts by proposing that any act of publishing or advertising “which may lead to the trafficking of a person shall be punished” (emphasis added) with imprisonment for 5-10 years. In effect, the provision mandates punishment for vaguely defined actions that may not actually be connected to the trafficking of a person at all. This is in stark contrast to most provisions in criminal law, which require mens rea (intention) along with actus reus (guilty act). The excessive scope of this provision is prone to severe abuse, since without any burden of showing a causal connect, it could be argued that anything “may lead” to the trafficking of a person.

Another by-product of passing the proposed legislation would be a dramatic shift in India’s landscape of intermediary liability laws, i.e., rules which determine the liability of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and messaging services like Whatsapp and Signal for hosting or distributing unlawful content.

Provisions in the Bill that criminalize the “publication” and “distribution” of content, ignore that unlike the physical world, modern electronic communication requires third-party intermediaries to store and distribute content. This wording can implicate neutral communication pipeways, such as ISPs, online platforms, mobile messengers, which currently cannot even know of the presence of such material unless they surveil all their users. Under the proposed legislation, the fact that human traffickers used Whatsapp to communicate about their activities could be used to hold the messaging service criminally liable.

By proposing such, the Bill is in direct conflict with the internationally recognized Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability, and in dissonance with existing principles of Indian law, flowing from the Information Technology Act, 2000, that identify online platforms as “safe harbours” as long as they act as mere conduits. From the perspective of intermediaries, monitoring content is unfeasible, and sometimes technologically impossible as in the case of Whatsapp, which facilitates end-to-end encrypted messaging. And as a 2011 study by the Centre for Internet & Society showed, platforms are happy to over-comply in favour of censorship to escape liability rather than verify actual violations. The proposed changes will invariably lead to a chilling effect on speech on online platforms.

Considering these problematic provisions, it will be a wise move to send the Bill to a select committee in Parliament wherein the relevant stakeholders can engage with the lawmakers to arrive at a revised Bill, hopefully one which prevents human trafficking without threatening the Constitutional right of free speech.