New Delhi: The Union Ministry of Electronics and IT (Meity) on Thursday issued a notification on the amendments to the 2021 IT Rules which gives it sweeping powers to constitute a unit that will decide to determine what is "fake or false or misleading" concerning "any business of the Central Government".
The amendments to the IT rules make it obligatory on social media platforms "not to publish, share or host fake, false or misleading information" about the government. This could also include news articles or videos published by media organisations online.
Editors Guild, an association of news editors in the country, called the Government's move “deeply disturbing'. It said the ruling will severely affect press freedom in the country.
“Meity has introduced amendments to the IT Rules that will have deeply adverse implications for press freedom in the country. As per the rules that have been notified, the Ministry has given itself the power to constitute a "fact-checking unit"...In effect, the government has given itself absolute power to determine what is fake or not, in respect of its own work, and order takedown. The so-called 'fact-checking unit' can be constituted by the Ministry, by a simple "notification published in the Official Gazette", the Editors Guild said in a statement on Friday.
"All this is against principles of natural justice, and akin to censorship," the body said in a statement.
"The ministry's notification of such draconian rules is therefore regrettable. The Guild again urges the ministry to withdraw this notification and conduct consultations with media organisations and press bodies."
Fact-checking by the Government
In its statement issued on Thursday, Meity said the notification was issued after extensive consultations. “These amendments have been drafted after holding widespread consultations with multiple stakeholders including parents, school teachers, academics, students, gamers and gaming industry associations, child rights bodies, etc,” Meity said in a statement.
Talking to reporters after the notification was issued, Minister of State for Electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar said on Thursday that fact-checkers are a reference point to fight against misinformation and rejected arguments that it will adversely impact "free speech".
"If you want section 79 safe harbour protection as an intermediary then you have some obligation. The obligation is that you have to be proactive on misinformation.
"If you choose to disagree with the fact checker, you can continue to have that on your platform but then the person who has been aggrieved by that disinformation and you will have a legitimate dispute in the court ... section 79 was a safe harbour. That will get removed," he said.
Internet platforms and social media platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and internet service providers etc fall within the ambit of an intermediary.
The IT ministry will notify an entity that will flag false information posted online about the government, Chandrasekhar said.
He said the work on fact check is still in progress.
The Government has decided to notify an entity through Meity and that organisation then would be the fact checker for all aspects of content online and only those content that is related to the government, Chandrasekhar said.
He said "Dos and Don'ts" around fact-checking will be shared before it is notified. "We will certainly have an outliner on what the organisation will look like. Whether it will be PIB fact check and what will be the dos and don'ts. We will certainly have that shared as we notify," the minister said.
He said that PIB needs to be notified to be a fact checker under the IT rules.
"Odds are that it will be a PIB fact check unit that will be notified. The reason we have not said PIB fact check explicitly under the rule is that it has not been notified under the IT rule," Chandrasekhar said.
Digital rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) said undefined terms such as "fake", "false" and "misleading" in the amendment make them susceptible to misuse by authorities.
“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,” it added.
(With PTI inputs)