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The Take Down of Free Speech Online

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 06, 2014 05:19 AM
As part of a study to access rate of compliance, in 2011, the Centre for Internet and Society Bangalore sent frivolous “take down” requests to seven prominent intermediaries. The study showed exactly how easy it is to take down online content.

This was published in Newslaundry on April 1, 2014. CIS research on Intermediary Liabilities is quoted.


CIS found that six out of the seven intermediaries “over complied” with the notices. Facts such as these about intermediary liability were discussed in a panel discussion “Intermediary Liability & Freedom of Expression in India” in Delhi on March 27, 2014 organised by Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University in collaboration with the Global Network Initiative.

The panel also included Professor Ranbir Singh, Vice Chancellor of NLU, Jermyn Brooks (Independent Chair – Global Network Initiative, Washington DC), Shyam Divan (Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India) and SiddharthVaradarajan (Journalist). They discussed proxy censorship by government through private players and how e-business’ lose out on opportunities because of the current legal framework in the country within which intermediaries have to function.

According to Section 2(1)(w) of The Information Technology Act, 2000, “intermediary”- with respect to any particular electronic message -signifies any person who on behalf of another person receives, stores or transmits that message or provides any service with respect to that message.According to Rishab Dara, recipient of the Google policy Fellowship 2011, in an article titled, Intermediary Liability in India: Chilling Effects on Free Expression on the Internet, “intermediaries are widely recognised as essential cogs in the wheel of exercising the right to freedom of expression on the Internet. Most major jurisdictions around the world have introduced legislations for limiting intermediary liability in order to ensure that this wheel does not stop spinning”.

The “safe harbor”or what is also known asIntermediary Liability Laws according to Section 79 of the Information Technology Act are given below:

Intermediaries not to be Liable in Certain Cases

(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force but subject to the provisions of sub-sections (2) and (3), an intermediary shall not be liable for any third party information, data, or communication link made available or hosted by him.

(2) The provisions of sub-section (1) shall apply if—

(a) the function of the intermediary is limited to providing access to a communication system over which information made available by third parties is transmitted or temporarily stored or hosted; or

(b) the intermediary does not—

(i) initiate the transmission,

(ii) select the receiver of the transmission, and

(iii) select or modify the information contained in the transmission;

(c) the intermediary observes due diligence while discharging his duties under this Act and also observes such other guidelines as the Central Government may prescribe in this behalf.

(3) The provisions of sub-section (1) shall not apply if—

(a) the intermediary has conspired or abetted or aided or induced, whether by threats or promise or othorise in the commission of the unlawful act;

(b) upon receiving actual knowledge, or on being notified by the appropriate Government or its agency that any information, data or communication link residing in or connected to a computer resource controlled by the intermediary is being used to commit the unlawful act, the intermediary fails to expeditiously remove or disable access to that material on that resource without vitiating the evidence in any manner.

Under the Act, the intermediary needs to act on a complaint within 36 hours of a take down notice -failing which they will be liable to legal action if the case is taken to the court.

Shyam Divan spoke about the absurdity of the 36-hour turnaround time that an intermediary has between receiving a complaint and taking down the content. According to him, without any kind of legal option to fall back on, intermediaries decide to comply with such take down notices fearing “serious penalties and possibility of prosecution” which results in “indirect censorship”.  He also said, “Domestic constitution in itself is not going to be sufficient”.  “Meta-constitutions” which are transnational and have uniform laws across countries could be a possible solution to the current confusion as the internet is a global phenomenon and it would ensure that “the extent of our online rights would not be limited to the constitution of the country”.

Giving the example of hate speech, Siddharth Varadarajan, mentioned the Indian executive’s different approaches towards different mediums. Referring to hate speeches made during the 1993 Bombay riots by Shiv Sena leaders and those made during the 2002 Gujarat riots, he said, “Hate speech never gets prosecuted when made amid a physical crowd in a volatile situation.I can understand why politicians won’t be prosecuted but why so much sensitivity on online content. This paradox is worth reflecting on.Despite its limited reach, the executive reacts in such a hyper-sensitive manner”.He adds that as the editor of a news website one faces daily problems in taking decisions on online content especially on comment moderation and whether the website would be responsible for a certain comment made by a reader. Echoing Shyam Divan’s views,he said that in India more than the punishment, when a case is filed, the legal process itself becomes a punishment, which forces Internet Service Providers to comply with requests of blocking online content.

The Global Network Initiative is a Washington-based organisation that provides a framework for companies to deal with governments requesting censorship or surveillance of online content, “rooted in international standards legal framework also interesting people”. According to a report released by it, “provided that the existing safe harbour regime is improved, intermediaries can become a significant part of the economy and their GDP contribution may increase to more than 1.3 per cent by 2015. The potential corresponds to $41 billion by 2015”.Jermyn Brooks,Independent Chair of GNI,argued that instead of focusing  all efforts on ensuring that the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 gets struck down by Courts for its unconstitutionality, there should also be a movement to effect policy changes through the amendment of the law. According to him, such a proposition would be more lucrative for a government looking for “re-invigoration of economic growth in India”.

The discussion was significant in the light that a number of cases related to the IT Act and freedom of online speech will be heard in the Supreme Court in the coming months. A petition by Mouthshut.com challenges the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2011 “which effectively creates a notice and takedown regime for content hosted by intermediaries”. Another important case up for hearing is a petition by Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrashekhar,“which also challenges these rules on grounds that they are ambiguous, require private parties to subjectively assess objectionable content, and that they undermine the safe harbour exemptions from liability granted to intermediaries by section 79 of the IT Act”. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) has challenged the Intermediaries Guidelines rules as well as the Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by the Public Rules 2009. “This petition has pointed to the lack of transparency in the blocking procedure, which does not currently offer the public any notice or reasons for the blocking.”

“The cases pending before the Supreme Court will have a significant impact on the freedom of expression. We should never take our rights for granted – the interpretation of these rights needs to be consistent with their spirit”, said Professor Ranbir Singh.

Citing the recent example of the Wendy Doniger episode, Varadarajan says, “If Penguin chooses to pack up at the District court level, you know how Internet Service Providers would react to take down notices…Specific targeting of online speech would ultimately have a negative impact on the traditional media”. And that is the crux of the matter. In the absence of intermediate liability not being limited, online censorship and the curtailment of the freedom of speech will become far easier and will only worsen.

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