Intermediary liability law needs updating

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Feb 13, 2019 12:05 AM |
The time has come for India to exert its foreign policy muscle. There is a less charitable name for intermediary liability regimes like Sec 79 of the IT Act — private censorship regimes.

The article was published in Business Standard on February 9, 2019.

Intermediaries get immunity from liability emerging from user-generated and third-party content because they have no “actual knowledge” until it is brought to their notice using “take down” requests or orders.

Since some of the harm caused is immediate, irreparable and irreversible, it is the preferred alternative to approaching courts for each case. When intermediary liability regimes were first enacted, most intermediaries were acting as common carriers — ie they did not curate the experience of users in a substantial fashion. While some intermediaries like Wikipedia continue this common carrier tradition, others driven by advertising revenue no longer treat all parties and all pieces of content neutrally. Facebook, Google and Twitter do everything they can to raise advertising revenues. They make you depressed. And if they like you, they get you to go out and vote. There is an urgent need to update intermediary liability law.

In response to being summoned by multiple governments, Facebook has announced the establishment of an independent oversight board. A global free speech court for the world’s biggest online country. The time has come for India to exert its foreign policy muscle. The amendments to our intermediary liability regime can have global repercussions, and shape the structure and functioning of this and other global courts.

While with one hand Facebook dealt the oversight board, with the other hand it took down APIs that would enable press and civil society to monitor political advertising in real time. How could they do that with no legal consequences? The answer is simple — those APIs were provided on a voluntary basis. There was no law requiring them to do so.

There are two approaches that could be followed. One, as scholar of regulatory theory Amba Kak puts it, is to “disincentivise the black box”. Most transparency reports produced by intermediaries today are on a voluntary basis; there is no requirement for this under law. Our new law could require a extensive transparency with appropriate privacy safeguards for the government, affected parties and the general public in terms of revenues, content production and consumption, policy development, contracts, service-level agreements, enforcement, adjudication and appeal. User empowerment measures in the user interface and algorithm explainability could be required. The key word in this approach is transparency.

The alternative is to incentivise the black box. Here faith is placed in technological solutions like artificial intelligence. To be fair, technological solutions may be desirable for battling child pornography, where pre-censorship (or deletion before content is published) is required. Fingerprinting technology is used to determine if the content exists in a global database maintained by organisations like the Internet Watch Foundation. A similar technology called Content ID is used pre-censor copyright infringement. Unfortunately, this is done by ignoring the flexibilities that exist in Indian copyright law to promote education, protect access knowledge by the disabled, etc. Even within such narrow application of technologies, there have been false positives. Recently, a video of a blogger testing his microphone was identified as a pre-existing copyrighted work.

The goal of a policy-maker working on this amendment should be to prevent repeats of the Shreya Singhal judgment where sections of the IT Act were read down or struck down. To avoid similar constitution challenges in the future, the rules should not specify any new categories of illegal content, because that would be outside the scope of the parent clause. The fifth ground in the list is sufficient — “violates any law for the time being in force”. Additional grounds, such as “harms minors in anyway”, is vague and cannot apply to all categories of intermediaries — for example, a dating site for sexual minorities. The rights of children need to be protected. But that is best done within the ongoing amendment to the POCSO Act.

As an engineer, I vote to eliminate redundancy. If there are specific offences that cannot fit in other parts of the law, those offences can be added as separate sections in the IT Act. For example, even though voyeurism is criminalised in the IT Act, the non-consensual distribution of intimate content could be criminalised, as it has been done in the Philippines.

Provisions that have to do with data retention and government access to that data for the purposes of national security, law enforcement and also anonymised datasets for the public interest should be in the upcoming Data Protection law. The rules for intermediary liability is not the correct place to deal with it, because data retention may also be required of those intermediaries that don’t handle any third-party information or user generated content. Finally, there have to be clear procedures in place for reinstatement of content that has been taken down.

Disclosure: The Centre for Internet and Society receives grants from Facebook, Google and Wikimedia Foundation