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American internet giants seek changes to India's proposed new IT rules

·4-min read

An industry group representing several tech giants has requested the Indian government to make a series of changes to the proposed amendments to the country’s new IT rules, warning those amendments “negate” the government’s commitment to ease of doing business.

India last month proposed a number of changes to the IT rules including creation of an appeals panel with the veto power to reverse content moderation decisions of social media firms.

Asia Internet Coalition — which represents Apple, Meta, Google, Amazon, Twitter and Spotify — has urged New Delhi to allow industry to adopt a self-regulatory grievance redressal mechanism as an alternative to grievance appellate committee.

“While the proposed amendments state that the intermediary must comply with the orders of the GAC [grievance appellate committee], there is neither any clarity on the extent of the GAC’s powers nor on the limitations in relation to such powers,” they recommended to the government in a letter, which has not been previously reported.

“Thus, the proposed amendments do not contain adequate restrictions to prevent the GAC from acting as a judicial or quasi-judicial body with wide-ranging authority.” Reuters on Wednesday reported that U.S.-India Business Council and U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, two lobby groups, have also expressed concerns about the proposed government panel.

A growing number of countries across the world have introduced -- or proposed to introduce -- new rules in recent years that hold tech giants accountable for actions on their platforms. Advocacy groups have expressed concerns that governments are attempting to assume more control over the content that flows on online platforms.

This week, Google and Meta agreed to new regulations in Indonesia, for instance, that grant the local government sweeping powers to shut down content it deems undesirable.

Asia Internet Coalition urged New Delhi to also hold users accountable for dissemination of certain types of content instead of scrutinizing the platform operators where that content is being communicated or transmitted.

The current rules require intermediaries to acknowledge complaints related to the blocking or removal of users’ accounts within 24 hours and disposed of in 15 days. An amendment to it says that communication links associated with prohibited information must be acted upon within 72 hours of reporting.

The industry body requested the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to retain the preexisting timeframe with respect to “all grievances.”

India, the world's second-largest internet market, is a key overseas region for most American tech giants. Google and Facebook identify the South Asian nation as their largest market by users, whereas Amazon and Apple have invested billions in the country over the past decade as they search for their next big growth market.

The increased regulations from New Delhi have escalated tension for several tech giants -- and they are fighting back. Twitter sued the Indian government earlier this month, seeking to challenge block orders. WhatsApp sued the Indian government last year, alleging the IT rules could allow local authorities to make people’s private messages “traceable” and conduct mass surveillance.

The body has also requested the government provide clarification on some of the proposed amendments. For instance, the government is seeking to require that intermediaries "respect" the rights guaranteed to Indian people by the Indian Constitution.

"At present, there is no clarity on what ‘respecting’ fundamental rights entails. By definition, fundamental rights are available against State or against instrumentality of State. Therefore, the question of an intermediary respecting rights accorded to citizens under the Constitution seems ambiguous. We believe that delegating control of governing and administering fundamental rights to intermediaries, who are private entities, could usher in a culture of self-censorship and become a dangerous inhibitor of free expression," Asia Internet Coalition wrote.

"Neither does the Constitution of India place any duty on private entities to advance the fundamental rights of users nor are such fundamental rights enforceable against private entities. To the extent it is determined that a private entity is carrying out a ‘public function’ as per the tests established by the Courts of India, the aggrieved party’s option for redress is subject to the writ jurisdictional powers of the Courts."

The body also told the government that a clause in the proposed rules imposes an obligation on intermediaries to compulsorily provide services to users. "In other words, the intermediaries are being treated like public utilities [and it] needs to be determined whether such an obligation can be imposed by way of rules," it added.

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