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May 2018

GOVT COMMITTEE TO REGULATE ONLINE MEDIA


MIB Has Set Up A Committee To "Delineate The Sphere Of Online Information Dissemination Which Needs To Be Brought Under Regulation, On The Lines Applicable To Print And Electronic Media."


"There is no proposal in the Government to introduce legislation to codify web media and news portals or to introduce legislation for the mandatory registration of web news portals," minister of state for electronics and information technology KJ Alphons told the Lok Sabha, in response to a question. In early April, the I&B Ministry formed a committee to regulate news portals and media websites, an official communique from the ministry said. This came just a day after the Centre recalled its directive regarding fake news after severe criticism.


FICCI, CII, IAMAI & CASBAA Want To Be On The Committee, But Lacks Any Representative from On-Line News Portals Being Regulated!



THE COMMITTEE

According to the Ministry's letter dated April 4, the 10-member committee includes secretaries of the MIB, the Ministry of Electronics & IT, Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Law and Ministry of Commerce, apart from the CEO of another government organisation called MyGov.com. What raises some hope is that the convener can add representatives from any other organisation as deemed fit. Currently, the MIB secretary is the convener of the 9-member panel.

As a result, Broadband India Forum (BIF), chambers of commerce FICCI and Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Hong Kong-based Asian media advocacy group CASBAA are amongst some of the organisations that have sought representation on the committee.

The committee will also include representatives of the Press Council of India (PCI), News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and Indian Broadcasters Federation (IBF).






JUSTIFICATION

The MIB order said the content on private TV channels are regulated by the Programme and Advertisement Codes, while PCI has its norms to regulate the print media. However, there were no norms or guidelines to regulate the online media websites and news portals. "Therefore, it has been decided to constitute a committee to frame and suggest a regulatory framework for online media/news portals including digital broadcasting and entertainment/infotainment sites and news/media aggregators," it added.

The Committee's Scope Is To Recommend. It Currently Does Not Have Disciplinary Powers.


SCOPE

Terms of the reference (ToR) or scope of the work according to the order is to "delineate the sphere of online information dissemination which needs to be brought under regulation, on the lines applicable to print and electronic media."

Like the TRAI, the committee's scope is predominantly to recommend. It does not have disciplinary powers, atleast for now.

The committee will also analyse the international scenario on the existing of regulatory mechanism with a view to incorporate the best practices.

The committee will recommend "appropriate policy formulation" for online media/ news portal and online content platforms, keeping in mind various norms, including extent of FDI allowed, programmes and advertising code for TV channels and those of the PCI, the order said.


CYBER EXPERTS WARY

Cyber and media law experts have expressed concern at the MIB order, pointing out that it is an attempt to control what content is published.

Pointing out that the 10-member panel formed to frame guidelines for websites lacks both a representative from digital media "the very object of the government's 'regulatory' exercise."

Lawyers say any provision to regulate the medium must be within the boundaries of freedom of speech as laid out under Article 19(1) of the constitution. Else, the Supreme Court will probably strike down its provisions, just as it had done in 2015, when it found section 66(A) of the Information Technology Act 2000 to be "unconstitutional." This section was widely misused by the police in various states to arrest innocent persons for posting critical comments on social and political issues on social networking sites.


EXCESSIVE CONTROL?

Advocate and public policy professional Apar Gupta says "There is no question that this government has a very poor record on media freedom." He points out that the government had passed wide-ranging orders for blocking websites. "Internet shutdowns have increased tremendously in the last four years. In fact, at the end of 2016, there was a report by Brookings Institution which had pegged India as the country with the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world, even ahead of Iraq and Libya."

He said it was not only an issue of media freedom but also of "The government wanting to control all forms of media itself."

The IT Act & IPC Already Apply To Online Media. Offences Of Obscenity, Defamation & Hate Speech Already Apply To All Mediums.


SAFEGUARDS ALREADY EXIST

Gupta said it would be incorrect to say that the digital media space is 'completely unregulated', because not only the IT Act, even provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as well as other substantive content law offences apply to online media. "Offences of obscenity, defamation and hate speech apply to anything that is shared online because these provisions are agnostic to the medium in which the content is actually shared."

The view was echoed by senior constitutional, commercial & media lawyer in the Supreme Court - Karuna Nundy, "We should keep in mind that the normal criminal law and IT act in any case apply online as well."

"There is a regulatory scheme which already exists under the rules of the Information Technology Act. Under the website blocking rules of the IT Act, the government is meant to provide notice with reasons for websites that they have blocked. But we had a situation in 2015 where about 800 websites were blocked, without reason," she pointed out.

As one expert said "There is no need for new laws, only for clarifying existing ones." n