The Editors Guild of India (EGI) on Friday said it is "deeply disturbed" by recently amended Information Technology (IT) rules which paved way for a government fact-checking body.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology notified the amendments in the IT Rules 2021 on Thursday. The EGI claimed that the amendment concerning the fact-checking body would have "adverse implications" for press freedom in the country.
The notified amendments paved way for a body that would flag "fake" content about the government. This body will be a fact-checking unit which, the EGI says, will have sweeping powers to determine what is 'fake or false or misleading' with respect to anything related to the Centre and with instructions to intermediaries (Interet Service Providers, and other service providers), to not host such content.
Through a notification, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Ministry published amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.
The amendments among other things, made it "obligatory" for intermediaries such as social media platforms to "not to publish, share or host fake, false or misleading information" about the Union government. The content that falls into this criteria will be flagged by a government body that is yet to be notified.
Free speech advocates have said that such a fact-checking government body with widespread powers would not be constitutional. Reports say that the fact-checking unit mentioned in the amendment would be carved out of the Press Information Bureau (PIB).
"There is no mention of what will be the governing mechanism for such a fact checking unit, the judicial oversight, the right to appeal, or adherence to the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court of India in Shreya Singhal v Union of India case, with respect to take down of content or blocking of social media handles. All this is against principles of natural justice, and akin to censorship," the Guild said.
The above judgement was given by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India in 2015, on the issue of online speech and intermediary liability in India.
In a separate statement, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) expressed "deep concerns" over the amendments.
The IFF said the amendments "directly and indirectly negatively impact online freedom of speech and the right to receive information".
The IFF also questioned the constitutionality of the fact-checking body to be formed by the Centre in line with the amendments.
"Assigning any unit of the government such arbitrary, overbroad powers to determine the authenticity of online content bypasses the principles of natural justice, thus making it an unconstitutional exercise. The notification of these amended rules cement the chilling effect on the fundamental right to speech and expression, particularly on news publishers, journalists, activists, etc," said the IFF.
The IFF further said that the terms "fake" and "false" remain undefined the amendments are likely to be in violation of existing laws and judgements.
"The fact check unit, notified by the Executive, could effectively issue a takedown order to social media platforms and even other intermediaries across the internet stack, potentially bypassing the process statutorily prescribed under Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000. In addition to circumventing the parliamentary procedures required to expand the scope of the parent legislation, i.e. the IT Act, these notified amendments are also in gross violation of the Hon’ble Supreme Court ruling in Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India (2013) which laid down strict procedures for blocking content. Finally, the vagueness of the undefined terms such as 'fake', 'false', 'misleading' make such overbroad powers further susceptible to misuse," said the IFF.
(With PTI inputs)