IT Rules 2021 Infringe on Freedom of Speech, Privacy: Apar Gupta

Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation explains why the IT rules are problematic.

3 min read

Video Editor: Prashant Chauhan

The deadline to comply with new IT rules for social media platforms, which were issued by the government three months ago, ended on Tuesday, 25 May.

However, Twitter, Facebook and others, which were required to abide by the rules notified in the Gazette of India on 25 February under Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules, 2021, have failed to comply on many counts till date.

Meanwhile, WhatsApp has approached the Delhi high court on Wednesday, 26 May, on the ground that the new IT rules would cause WhatsApp to ‘break privacy protections.’

In response to WhatsApp, the Ministry of Electronics and IT said in a statement that it respects the 'Right to Privacy' and has no intention to violate it when WhatsApp would be required to disclose the origin of a particular message.

Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation explains what these rules are and why they are problematic.

What Do The IT Rules Entail?

As new social media rules to come into force, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter will be asked to disclose the first originator of a mischievous tweet or message.

In a move that caused a stir, the government ordered that social media platforms would be bound under the law to remove any content flagged by authorities within 36 hours.

Moreover, platforms will have to set up a complaint redressal mechanism with an officer being based in the country to resolve the matter.

Gupta explains why these rules affect two of your fundamental rights – Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression and Right to Privacy.

Why Should You Be Concerned?

The new rules essentially view social media platforms as “intermediaries” – who are essentially conduits or pipelines of internet content and not authors of content. Intermediaries are entities that transmit, host, or publish content generated by us – the users – but do not exercise editorial control over it. Think of Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter.

Therefore, Twitter cannot be held guilty for a hate speech published by an individual on its platform. Now, in order to enjoy this immunity, the government wants intermediaries to effectively monitor content even more closely.

Gupta asserts that if any complaint is not acted upon within 24 hours, police can not only arrest the person who sent out the tweet, but also the platform itself, which in this case will be Twitter. "Just for a second imagine it is not you who is filing the complaint, but somebody else," he said.

End-to-End Encryption at Risk

The rules also have a “traceability” requirement which mandates significant social media intermediaries like WhatsApp to “enable the identification of the first originator of the information on its computer resource.”

"The government now wants WhatsApp to trace the originator of every message. This means that your existing meta data for instance your group chats, sign-in details and your conversation data will now be stored with the government,"adds Gupta.

Automated Filtering to Be Deployed

AI ‘learns' by examining vast amounts of data, and the development of a censorship AI is likely to require social media intermediaries to store and examine large amounts of user-generated content that does not in any way relate to the kind of content sought to be censored.

"Social media platforms will also have to use automated message filtering to clean your social media using keywords and text-based filtering or even through photo basis." He further adds, "Normally, AI-based filtering can help remove child sexual abuse material which does not seem to be problematic. The worrisome part is that any other content taken down which was not supported by a particular group on social media cannot be reuploaded."

The AI will be context independent, which might lead to removal of large amounts of material on social media.

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