SOPs on IT rules needed as ‘guardrails’ for consumers, investors; govt will deliver on it: Rajeev Chandrasekhar

Standard Operating Procedures — which will provide further clarity on the new IT and intermediary rules — are required as “guardrails” for consumers and investors, and the government would certainly deliver on it, Minister of State for IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar has said.

The SOPs involve inter-ministerial consultation and are about “sensitising” many ministries, Chandrasekhar said, adding those conversations are already on.

In an interview to PTI, Chandrasekhar further said the IT Ministry is also planning a massive outreach next year in form of a dialogue with public, consumer forums, academia, industry and others on the fast-evolving online space and what more needs to be done to ensure that internet is open, safe and trusted.

Chandrasekhar said the outreach by the IT Ministry will be “broad-based” and across various states. These dialogues will happen “where power of internet is transforming lives of people.”

While the IT Ministry has been regularly engaging with stakeholders on various issues, it will now “start spreading out and meeting citizens from all across the country in a much more organised manner about what their expectation from the internet is, and what more the government can do to empower users.”

To a question on the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) related to IT and intermediary rules, the minister asserted that the internet momentum must continue and therefore, it is in the nation’s interest to have an open, safe, trusted and accountable internet and policies around that.

“So the SOPs, which are part of clarifying the rules and the policies, are required as guardrails for investors and guardrails for the consumers and we will deliver on that,” he said but declined to specify a timeline.

The government released Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) around the intermediary guidelines last week, seeking to address queries that internet and social media users may have about scope of the new rules, major changes they bring over past provisions, how the rules enhance safety of women and children, and due diligence to be done by an intermediary, among others.

The much-awaited SOPs around the IT rules and intermediary norms are expected to contain details of the appropriate agencies which will have the authority to issue takedown notices to platforms.

Chandrasekhar termed the cyberspace as a “valuable opportunity” for India and asserted that the government intends to “legislate carefully” with light-touch regulation.

“…MeitY will start having public consultations at an appropriate time, maybe sometime early next year, about the whole aspect of how do we keep the internet safe and trusted, more accountable. And, of course, open at the same time. How do we do that?,” Chandrasekhar said.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) will work with consumer organisations and internet governance forums, and hold interactions with groups of consumers and industry startups, asking them their vision for the internet.

The move assumes significance given that the internet while being a force-multiplier for economies, improving governance, empowering citizens and transforming businesses, has also seen rising instances of user harm.

“…we will not say, we believe that these are the user harms. Consumers are already aware of what their rights are and what their expectations are. We will listen to the consumers, industry, and academia, we will listen to people and say what do you believe are priority areas for policy, for laws, for online, internet…what would you like the government to do more in terms of rules, laws…,” he said.

The entire initiative will be aimed at making the internet and online space safer for citizens and more accountable for intermediaries while also focusing on ease of doing business, and encouraging investments and innovations, he emphasised.

“The internet is many things…So the internet policymaking has to be very consistent, clear, and consultative because we have multiple objectives out of internet in India,” he said.

Internet is fuelling startups, improving governance, bringing more digital services to the public, attracting investments, and leading to job creation in India, Chandrasekhar noted.

“Our view of the internet is not about being obsessive about ‘Big Tech’. Yes, they are a factor. Their conduct has to be consistent with the expectation of the Indian citizen. But our approach to the internet is not Big Tech or nothing,” he said.

Internet needs to be seen from the perspective of entrepreneurship, citizens and startups and “for all of those reasons also we should legislate…regulate very sensibly, very properly,” the minister said.

Chandrasekhar further said he would not start the exercise with the “last chapter in mind” but rather talk to the stakeholders and “arrive slowly at a consensus of what we should be doing vis-a-vis the internet.”

The “conversations” that the ministry is planning to initiate may lead to executive or administrative decisions, or tweaks in law, depending on the final conclusions drawn from the outreach, he said.

India enforced new IT intermediary rules earlier this year, aiming to bring greater accountability for big tech companies, including Twitter and Facebook.

The IT rules — which drew criticism from certain sections over traceability requirements and some other provisions –also require social media platforms to remove any content flagged by authorities within 36 hours and set up a robust complaint redressal mechanism with an officer being based in the country.

Social media companies are required to take down posts depicting nudity or morphed photos within 24 hours of receiving a complaint.

Significant social media companies — those with over 50 lakh users — also have to publish a monthly compliance report disclosing details of complaints received and action taken as also details of contents removed proactively.

After the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 came into being earlier this year, Facebook-owned WhatsApp had approached the Delhi High Court challenging the new IT rules for social media intermediaries that require the messaging app to make provisions to identify the first originator of information.

WhatsApp had said the traceability provision would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermine people’s right to privacy.

The government had earlier also slammed Twitter over deliberate defiance and failure to comply with the newly-framed IT rules. However, the company has since appointed the key officials required under the new norms.

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