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Will the new IT rules muzzle voices of dissent?

By Hari Jaisingh

Will the new IT rules muzzle voices of dissent?

By Hari Jaisingh

 

The Indian media still has much new ground to cover. There are several untied ends, both within and without. Muddled thinking, misplaced zeal, lack of objectivity, absence of a broader understanding, arrogance, and one-track approach mark the media as flawed as the other democratic organs. According to Armenian-American journalist and scholar, Ben-hur Haig Bagdikian describes in his article, The US Media: Supermarket of Assembly Line, published in the Journal of Communication

“The proper measure of a country’s mass media is whether, by thorough examination and reporting, they increase understanding of important realities and whether through presentation of the widest possible spectrum of thought and analysis, they create an adequate reservoir of insights into the social process. The media may produce entertainment and sell merchandise, but if, in addition, they do not create a rich marketplace of ideas and serious information, they fail in a prime function. In primitive and unchanging times, limited public knowledge and insulation from alternative ideas might have been tolerable. But for a dynamic society, especially a democracy in a rapidly changing world, a lack of diversity in fact and the thought leaves a population partially blinded: people will have a defective understanding with which to cope with new circumstances. Diversity and richness in the media are not ornaments of democracy but essential elements for its survival.”

 

Viewed in this perspective, social media has given a wider dimension to ideas and thinking processes as it provides services primarily in the nature of messaging and posts. In the process, critical issues of privacy and national security have surfaced. The government, therefore, came out with new Information Technology Rules for Digital Media, leading the technology giants to lawsuits over privacy issues.

On May 25, Facebook’s messaging platform, WhatsApp, moved the Delhi High Court against India’s new Information Technology rules. Incidentally, May 25 happened to be the deadline for IT intermediaries to comply with the new rules.

WhatsApp’s plea in the court was that the new rules violate the fundamental right to privacy and the right to freedom of speech and expression. In this context, it highlighted the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in the K. S. Puttaswamy case where it held that the right to privacy is a fundamental right.

While this was the first major tech company to challenge the new IT rules, it may be mentioned that the Delhi High Court is already seized of petitions by news portals such as The WireThe News Minute, Quint Digital Media Limited and The Foundation for Independent Journalism, over its attempt to regulate digital news media. The petitions claimed that the new rules seek to regulate online news portals by imposing a vaguely worded ethics code. The High Court has sought a response from the Centre on these pleas.

It is true that social media has brought the world closer by democratizing debates and enabling the exchange of ideas across borders. As such, India has always welcomed social media companies to operate in the country and the people generally use these platforms freely. However, problems related to its misuse have cropped up over the past few years and, in the process, the Centre has revised the rules.

The new IT rules require social media firms to set up an effective grievance redressal mechanism for receiving and resolving complaints from the users or victims. They are mandated to appoint an India-based grievance officer, compliance office, and nodal officer to deal with complaints. Complaints must be acknowledged within 24 hours and resolved within 15 days of receipt.

The Facebook-owned chat messenger service WhatsApp believes that new rules could be misused to muzzle voices of dissent. It would be a pity if a civilized dialogue between two different points of view becomes increasingly difficult in a polarized environment. The danger of a vindictive approach to the process of an open dialogue gives wrong signals at home and overseas.

Electronics and Information Technology Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad says:

“The Government of India is committed to ensuring the Right of Privacy to all its citizens, but at the same time it is also the responsibility of the government to maintain law and order and ensure national security.”

WhatsApp’s issue with the new rules is one of traceability given its user base of over 300 million². WhatsApp messaging system has, since 2015, been end-to-end encrypted, which means, in the company’s own words:

“Only you and the person you are communicating with can read what is sent, and nobody in between can access it, not even WhatsApp.”

According to Matthew Hodgson, CEO of Element, a messaging app that supports end-to-end encryption:

“Backdoors necessarily introduce a fatal weak point into encryption for everyone, which then becomes the ultimate high-value target for attackers. Anyone who can determine the secret needed to break the encryption will gain full access, and you can be absolutely sure the backdoor key will leak – whether that’s via intrusion, social engineering, brute-force attacks, or accident. And even if you unilaterally trust your current government to be responsible with the keys to the backdoor, is it wise to unilaterally trust their successors? Computer security is only ever a matter of degree, and the only safe way to keep a secret like this safe is for it not to exist in the first place.”

 

Traceability, according to WhatsApp, is a threat to privacy. The idea of end-to-end encryption, as highlighted in the above statement, is that it ensures that no one, other than the person one is communicating with, can know that a particular message has been sent. Traceability contradicts this very idea and has the potential of creating vulnerabilities with regard to security.

According to WhatsApp, it would:

“…force private companies to collect and store who-said-what and who-shared-what for billions of messages sent each day.”

Meanwhile, Google has told the Delhi High Court that the new rules do not apply to them as the company is a search engine and not a “social media intermediary” like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Google further added that:

“Proactive monitoring could have a chilling effect on free speech.”

There seems to be no meeting ground between the government and the tech giants. However, what is required from India is the spirit of amiability and accommodation in the interest of better media relations. I would like to reiterate that the 2019 Supreme Court order had cautioned the Centre from doing anything which amounts to invasions of individual privacy.

Analyzing the complexities relating to privacy and related issues, the Supreme Court needs to take up the matter in totality and give a final verdict on all related matters of privacy and the law. This is the only way to end confusion and conflicting viewpoints. This will be in the interest of all concerned, including social media outfits and their end-users.

 

Will the new IT rules/Will the new IT rules

 

(Mr. Hari Jaisingh, the former Editor of The Tribune group of publications, has had a distinguished journalistic career spread over a period of 45 years. He has worked in senior positions with leading Indian newspapers, including The Tribune, The Indian Express, National Herald, and the Business & Political Observer).

 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of newsabode.com. newsabode.com does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

 

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