The government will ensure that consumers always have their platforms accountable to them in the digital space, and the rights of Indian consumers to have safe Internet will not be allowed to be compromised or diluted, Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar said on Friday.
The Minister of State for Electronics and IT — who is spearheading an extensive and in-depth nationwide consultation on the new Digital India Bill that will replace two decades old the Information Technology Act — noted that for years, the big tech platforms masqueraded as innovation and misused market dominance necessitating overhaul of regulatory and legal frameworks.
“…it is a commitment that we have to the people of India…1.2 billion Indians who are going to use the Indian Internet, that we will keep the Internet open for them. We will deliver safety and trust on the Internet for them. And we will make sure that regardless of whether you’re a big tech or small tech, Indian or foreign that consumers will always have their platforms accountable to them,” the minister told PTI.
He said “change” is normal in the tech and digital world.
“As we look to the future, and we look to the past, disruptions are going to be increasingly normal…So, we are essentially creating these laws or rules to help make this movement forward, as non-disruptive as possible,” Chandrasekhar said.
For several years now, the big tech, be it search engines or social media platforms have, in a sense, avoided being regulated by governments all around the world “because they masqueraded as innovation”.
Most governments around the world and consumers are finding out that as much good they these big platforms do, there is also a flip side. For instance, they may be helping users search faster, but they may also track movements.
“…as the competition commission has recently pointed out…certainly, they (digital platforms) allow you to do many things more efficiently, but they’re also certainly misusing the market power and market dominance,” the minister said.
The government’s approach is that platforms must continue to add value to the lives of the citizens, not exploit citizens or their data.
“So, there are many things that are wrong about the big tech platforms even as they masquerade as innovations, and they do good…And therefore, these guardrail approaches that we are taking…the prism of user harm is the basic principle of making sure that regardless of whether you’re big tech or small tech, foreign or Indian (platform), the Indian digital nagrik, the Indian consumers’ rights to data protection and privacy, and of having a safe Internet, will never be compromised, will never be diluted,” the minister said.
The Internet today is vastly different from what it was back in 2000, when the IT Act was enacted.
“Internet in 2000, when the IT Act was enacted, and the Internet in 2022-2023, from a complexity, diversity, risk and harm point of view…they are two very different animals. And therefore, it is certainly clear…that a legislative framework that dealt with the benign Internet and Internet that only did good, that legislative framework is certainly not going to be useful in an era where the Internet is not just good, but it is also bad,” he explained.
Today’s Internet has several layers of user harm and complexities.
“It is certainly not about the Internet having only one intermediary, which connects the user to the Internet. Now, there are many, many different types of intermediaries with very different characteristics of benefits, harms, risks, etc,” the minister said.
Algorithmic biases and accountability are among the challenges being thrown up in digital space.
“The Digital India Act is an Act that proposes to address these issues. But we will not address this by making it very complex to resemble the complexity of the Internet. It will be based on the simple principle that the Internet should always be open, and there should be no disruption of the choice that Indian consumer has. Nobody should be able to assert or use or misuse their market power to distort choices,” Chandrasekhar said.
Given that 120 crore Indians, old and young, women and men, are all going to use the Internet in their lives for pensions, various benefits, education and skilling, the Internet has to be safe and trusted, the minister asserted.
“We cannot afford to have our Internet to be anything but safe and trusted where anybody who does user harm is immediately identified and held accountable under the law. So, we are moving from an era of a very simple Internet to a very complex Internet, from an era of the Internet doing good to the Internet as much as representing bad and therefore, the legislative framework is going from IT Act to Digital India Act,” the minister said.
He said the issue of whether social media platforms should have safe harbour provisions at all is a “legitimate question” to ask and “a conversation worth having”.
“When publishers…today are held accountable for the content they have, post, create, under the laws of the land, what is so special about a platform that makes it exempt, and therefore denies its users recourse to natural justice if there is something that is wrong, which is patently false, which is creating harm, which is defamatory,” he said.
These issues on why users are not being fully protected in such cases, and why platforms should have that immunity “is a conversation worth having”.
“We are inclined to believe today in the conversation that we’ve had with various stakeholders that the government, which is playing the role of an arbiter between the platforms that have this harmful content and the user who’s aggrieved by the content, the government should step aside,” he emphasised.
In cases where a user aggrieved by the content of a platform wants to go after the platform, the matter should be settled by the laws of the land and the judicial system and not the government.
“The government is, in a sense, wittingly or unwittingly placed itself in the middle by giving section 79 and safe harbour immunity to these platforms. So, I think it’s worth having a discussion about that in this day and age when the Internet is increasingly getting more and more complex, 120 crore Indians are going to be online, platforms are going to evolve and grow, and new ones are going to come, should the government be placing itself in the middle of this,” he noted.
The questioning of the safe harbour provisions has certainly created a ruffle among the platforms for now.
“…but as I explained it to them, as I explain to the consumers and other user organisations, people are beginning to understand the logic of what I’m saying, which is why should the government at all be protecting the platforms…the platforms should start evolving a model where the relationship with their consumers is one where they are accountable, and therefore their own content moderation strategies are aligned to the consumers,” he said.