In order to combat the menace of fake news on social media as well as its growing misuse for illegal activities such as child pornography, the government is planning to amend the Information Technology Act to impose steeper penalties on apps and websites that fail to crack down on the above. The proposal reportedly includes the extreme step of taking down offending sites and apps in case of serious violations.
On December 24, the IT ministry had released draft changes that would require such 'intermediaries' to enable tracing of originators of information when required by authorised government agencies. Moreover, the amendments require them to deploy tools to "identify" and curb unlawful content, as well as follow stricter due-diligence practices. The ministry last month met senior executives of Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other leading social media and internet companies to discuss these proposed changes while wider public feedback has been sought on the issue by January 15.
"We need accountability and power to heavily penalise the companies in case of violations, or refusal to cooperate," a senior government official told The Times of India. Last summer, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had reportedly even sent out a letter to stakeholders, asking them to look into the option of blocking popular apps under the provisions of Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. This section provides for a mechanism for the government to block public access to any online information "in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to the above". According to the daily, the government had, in fact, carried out an exercise to check the feasibility of such a move last year and the issue is still being discussed.
"Even the penalties that we currently have under the IT Act are not sufficient and need to be revised. Many global companies have big turnover and relatively small penalties may not be a sufficient deterrence. We are taking a cue from the penalty proposals in the data protection bill," another government officer told the daily. The data protection bill, finalised by the government, proposes the maximum penalty at Rs 15 crore or 4 per cent of the worldwide turnover of the violator, whichever is higher.
So the amendments could potentially impact the operations of popular services. Facebook-owned WhatsApp, in particular, has faced a lot of government heat on the fake news front and is yet to navigate the impasse over message traceability. The Centre's newfound zeal to clamp down on social media apps makes more sense when you factor in the 2019 General Elections - concerns that fake news may be used to influence the elections has been gaining steam in recent times.
However, according to legal experts, there is little in the IT law to tackle the fake news phenomenon. "We do not have any law to take the companies to task on this issue. They can be proceeded against only under the Indian Penal Code provisions, and not as per the IT Act," Puneet Bhasin, a cyber law expert, told the daily. "We do require stricter laws and effective enforcement, including having data localisation."
(Edited by Sushmita Choudhury Agarwal)