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Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code: Shifting Paradigm of Social & Digital Media Platforms

It has been just over six months since the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (the “Rules“) have been notified. However, these six months have been nothing short of a roller coaster ride for the (Internet) Intermediaries and Digital Media platforms, especially Social Media platforms who have tried to muddle through the slew of compliance obligations now imposed through these eccentric Rules. Notwithstanding, some of them had to face the wrath of the Government and even Courts for the delay in adherence.

On this topic, we are trying to stitch together a series of articles covering the entire gamut of the Rules, including their objective, applicability, impact, and the key issues around some of the rules being declared unconstitutional, etc.

In our first article, we analyse the timeline, objectives, and applicability of these Rules through some of the definitions provided under the Rules and the IT Act.

Tracing the Roots of the Digital Media Ethics Code 

The initiation of this endeavour can be tracked down to July 26, 2018, when a Calling Attention Motion was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on the misuse of social media and spread of fake news, whereby the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology conveyed the Government’s intent to strengthen the existing legal framework and make social media platforms accountable under the law. Thereafter, the first draft of the proposed amendments to the Intermediary Guidelines, The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules) 2018, was published for public comments on December 24, 2018.

In the same year, the Supreme Court in Prajwala v. Union of India[1] directed the Union Government to form necessary guidelines or Statement of Procedures (SOPs) to curb child pornography online. An ad-hoc committee of the Rajya Sabha studied the issue of pornography on social media and its effects on children and the society and laid its report recommending the facilitation of identification of the first originator of such contents in February 2020.

In another matter, the Supreme Court of India on October 15 2020, issued a notice to the Union Government seeking its response on a PIL to regulate OTT Platforms. The Union Government subsequently on November 9 2020, made a notification bringing digital and online media under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, thereby giving the Ministry the power to regulate OTT Platforms.

On February 25, 2021, the Union Government notified the much-anticipated Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, bringing various digital entities under its purview and imposing new compliances to regulate them.

 

Objectives of the Digital Media Ethics Code

The rising internet and social media penetration in India raises concerns of transparency, disinformation and misuse of such technologies. The Rules address these concerns and bring accountability to social and digital media platforms by mandating the setting up of a grievance redressal mechanism that adheres to statutory timeframes. The Rules also address the legal lacuna surrounding the regulation of OTT platforms and the content available on them and introduces a three-tier content regulation mechanism.

Key definitions and the applicability of the Digital Media Ethics Code

The Rules add on extensively to the 2011 Intermediary Guidelines and also introduce new terms and definitions. To understand the Rules and the compliances thereunder in a holistic manner, it becomes imperative to learn the key terms and definitions. This also addresses concerns of applicability of the Rules to different entities, as they prescribe different sets of compliances to different categories of entities.

Key definitions:

Digital Media as per Rule 2(1)(i) are digitised content that can be transmitted over the internet or computer networks, including content received, stored, transmitted, edited or processed by

  • an intermediary; or
  • a publisher of news and current affairs content or a publisher of online curated content.

This broadly includes every content available online and every content that can be transmitted over the internet.

Grievance as per Rule 2(1)(j) includes any complaint, whether regarding any content, any duties of an intermediary or publisher under the Act, or other matters pertaining to the computer resource of an intermediary or publisher as the case may be.

Intermediary has not been defined in the Rules, but as per S. 2(1)(w) of the IT Act, intermediary, with respect to any particular electronic record, is any person who on behalf of another person receives, stores or transmits that record or provides any service with respect to that record and includes telecom service providers, network service providers, internet service providers, web-hosting service providers, search engines, online payment sites, online-auction sites, online-market places and cyber cafes.

The first part of the definition lays down that an Intermediary with respect to an electronic record, is any person that receives, stores or transmits that electronic record on behalf of another person.

An entity becomes an intermediary for a particular electronic record if that record is received by, stored in or transmitted through the entity on behalf of a third party. However, as the clause does not use the term “collect” with respect to an electronic record, any data that entities may collect, including IP Addresses, device information, etc., do not fall within the definition’s purview. Hence the entities would not be considered as intermediaries for such data.

Moreover, the second part of the definition lays down that those entities that provide any service with respect to an electronic record would be intermediaries. However, what constitutes “service” has been a key point of discussion in prior cases. In Christian Louboutin Sas v. Nakul Bajaj[2], the Court not only held that the nature of the service offered by an entity would determine whether it falls under the ambit of the definition, but also went on to hold that when the involvement of an entity is more than that of merely an intermediary, i.e., it actively takes part in the use of such record, it might lose safe harbour protection under S. 79 of the Act.

The definition also includes telecom service providers, network service providers, internet service providers, web-hosting service providers, search engines, online payment sites, online-auction sites, online-market places, and cyber cafes as intermediaries. In Satish N v. State of Karnataka[3], it was held that taxi aggregators like Uber are also intermediaries with respect to the data they store. Therefore, Telecom Service Providers like Airtel, Vi, Jio, etc., Network Service Providers like Reliance Jio, BSNL, MTNL, etc., Internet Service Providers like ACT Fibernet, Hathaway, etc., Search Engines like Google, Bing, etc., Online Payment gateways like Razorpay, Billdesk etc., Online Auction Sites like eBay, eAuction India, etc., Online Market Places like Flipkart, Amazon etc. are all considered intermediaries.

Social Media Intermediaries as per Rule 2(1)(w) is an intermediary which primarily or solely enables online interaction between two or more users and allows them to create, upload, share, disseminate, modify or access information using its services. This includes platforms like Tumblr, Flickr, Diaspora, Ello, etc.

Significant Social Media Intermediaries as per Rule 2(1)(v) is a social media intermediary having number of registered users in India above such threshold as notified by the Central Government. Currently, the threshold is 5 million users. Platforms that fall under this category would be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Telegram etc.

News & current affairs content as per Rule 2(1)(m) includes newly received or noteworthy content, including analysis, especially about recent events primarily of socio-political, economic or cultural nature, made available over the internet or computer networks, and any digital media shall be news and current affairs content where the context, substance, purpose, import and meaning of such information is in the nature of news and current affairs content. Therefore, news pieces reported by newspapers or news agencies, shared online, on social media, or on digital media platforms are news & current affairs content. This includes contents of such nature created by any person and shared through social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter etc. Digital content discussing news and the latest happenings will also come under the purview of this definition.

Newspaper as per Rule 2(1)(n) as a periodical of loosely folded sheets usually printed on newsprint and brought out daily or at least once in a week, containing information on current events, public news or comments on public news. Newspapers like The Hindu, Times of India etc. will fall under this category.

News aggregator as per Rule 2(1)(o) is an entity performing a significant role in determining the news and current affairs content being made available, makes available to users a computer resource that enable such users to access such news and current affairs content which is aggregated, curated and presented by such entity. This includes platforms like Inshorts, Dailyhunt etc.

Online curated content as per Rule 2(1)(1) is any curated catalogue of audio-visual content, other than news and current affairs content, which is owned by, licensed to or contracted to be transmitted by a publisher of online curated content, and made available on demand, including but not limited through subscription, over the internet or computer networks, and includes films, audio visual programmes, documentaries, television programmes, serials, podcasts and other such content. This includes movies and shows available on OTT platforms like Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+Hotstar etc.

Publisher of News and Current Affairs Content as per Rule 2(1)(t) includes online paper, news portal, news aggregator, news agency and such other entities, which publishes news and current affairs. This would include websites/apps such as The Wire, The News Minute, Scroll.in, Dkoding.in, The Print, The Citizen, LiveLaw, Inshorts etc.

While the Rules do not include the regular newspapers or replica e-papers of these newspapers, as they come under the Press Council Act, news websites such as Hindustantimes.com, IndianExpress.com, thehindu.com are covered under the Rules, and the Union Government clarified the same on June 10, 2021. The clarification stated that websites of organisations having traditional newspapers and digital news portals/websites of traditional TV Organisations come under the ambit of the Rules.

This does not include news and current affairs reported or posted by laymen or ordinary citizens online, as the scope is limited only to news publishing agencies.

Publisher of Online Curated Content as per Rule 2(1)(u) is a publisher who performs a significant role in determining the online curated content being made available and enables users’ access to such content via internet or computer networks. Such transmission of online currented content shall be in the course of systematic business or commercial activity. This includes all OTT platforms, including Netflix, Prime Video, Voot, Lionsgate, Disney+Hotstar, etc.

The Digital Media Ethics Code Challenged in Court

Part III of the IT Rules has been challenged by many persons in various High Courts. News platforms including The Wire, The Quint, and AltNews moved to the Delhi High Court, alleging that online news platforms do not fall under the purview of Section 87 of the IT Act, under which these Rules are made as the section is only applicable to intermediaries. Section 69A is also limited to intermediaries and government agencies. It is alleged that since such publishers are not intermediaries, they do not fall under the purview of the IT Rules.

A similar petition was moved by LiveLaw, a legal news reporting website before the Kerala High Court, alleging that the Rules violated Articles 13, 14, 19(1)(a), 19(1)(g), and 21 of the Constitution and the IT Act.[4] The petitioners contended that the Rules had brought Digital News Media under the purview of the Press Council of India Act and the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, without amending either of the two legislations. They also alleged that the rules were undoing the procedural safeguards formed by the Supreme Court in the Shreya Singhal[5] case. In this regard, the Kerala High Court has ordered that no coercive action is to be taken against the petitioner as interim relief.

Recently, the Bombay High Court in Agij Promotion of Nineteenonea v. Union of India[6] delivered an interim order staying Rules 9(1) and 9(3), which provides for publishers’ compliance with the Code of Ethics, and the three tier self-regulation system respectively. The Court found Rule 9(1) prima facie an intrusion of Art. 19(1)(a).

Legality & Enforceability of the Digital Media Ethics Code

Even though six months have passed since the Rules came into force, the legality and enforceability of the Rules are still in question. While most intermediaries, including social media and significant social media intermediaries, have at least partly complied with the Rules, the same cannot be said for publishers of news and current affairs content and online curated content. This will have to wait until the challenges to its legality and constitutionality are settled by Courts.

References:

[1] 2018 SCC OnLine SC 3419.

[2] 2018 (76) PTC 508 (Del).

[3] ILR 2017 KARNATAKA 735.

[4] https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/kerala-high-court-new-it-rules-orders-no-coercive-action-issues-notice-on-livelaws-plea-170983

[5] (2013) 12 SCC 73.

[6] Agij Promotion of Nineteenonea v. Union of India, WRIT PETITION (L.) NO.14172 of 2021.

Image Credits: 

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

 

Even though six months have passed since the Rules came into force, the legality and enforceability of the Rules are still in question. While most intermediaries, including social media and significant social media intermediaries, have at least partly complied with the Rules, the same cannot be said for publishers of news and current affairs content and online curated content. This will have to wait until the challenges to its legality and constitutionality are settled by Courts.

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