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EGI Urges IT Minister to ‘Expunge’ Amendments to IT Rules on Social Media Content

Draft amendment to IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, extends sweeping powers to PIB to determine "fake news"; Editors guild terms it illegal and unconstitutional.
EGI Urges IT Minister to ‘Expunge’ Amendments to IT Rules on Social Media Content

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New Delhi: The Editors Guild of India on Tuesday urged IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw to "expunge" the draft amendment to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, which extends sweeping powers to the Press Information Bureau (PIB) to determine "fake news".

In a letter sent to Mr Vaishnaw on Tuesday, the Guild asked the ministry to initiate consultations with press bodies, media organisations and other stakeholders on the regulatory framework for digital media, so as to not undermine press freedom.

Terming the move as Orwellian, the Guild said, "The amendment is in itself an illegal move as the PIB has no constitutional authority to be a regulator of the press in any capacity."

Last week, the IT ministry put the draft amendments to the IT Rules in the public domain for consultations. One of the amendments tasks the PIB’s fact-check unit with identifying fake/false news in any reportage relating to the Union government.

Making use of the IT ministry’s invitation to the public and stakeholders to respond to the amendments by January 25, the Guild in its letter to the minister noted: "At the outset, determination of fake news cannot be in the sole hands of the government and will result in the censorship of the press. Already multiple laws exist to deal with content that is found to be factually incorrect.

The Guild said it was "deeply concerned" by the proposed amendment giving sweeping powers to the PIB.

"This new procedure basically serves to make it easier to muzzle the free press and will give sweeping powers to the PIB, or any 'other agency authorised by the central government for fact checking', to force online intermediaries to take down content that the government may find problematic. Further, the words 'in respect of any business of the central government' seems to give the government a carte blanche to determine what is fake or not with respect to its own work. This will stifle legitimate criticism of the government and will have an adverse impact on the ability of the press to hold governments to account, which is a vital role it plays in a democracy."

The Guild reminded the ministry that the PIB's mandate was to disseminate information on the government's policies, programmes, initiatives and achievements. Thus, according to the Guild, giving the PIB sweeping regulatory powers is "illegal and unconstitutional".

"By this proposed amendment, sweeping regulatory powers are sought to be given to this agency, which is patently illegal and unconstitutional," it said in the letter.

Citing the Shreya Singhal vs Union of India case on online speech and intermediary liability, the Guild said the amendment was in violation of procedures for blocking content that was put in place by the Supreme Court in its judgment. “This apart, the proposed amendment goes far beyond the mandate of Section 69A of the IT Act, which empowers the ministry to take down content in certain enumerated and specific conditions,” the Guild said.

EGI was established in 1978 to protect the freedom of the press and to raise the standards of editorial leadership of newspapers and magazines.

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