Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 19 February 2023

Information Technology Rules, 2021

Source: By Soumyarendra Barik: The Indian Express

Last week, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) directed YouTube and Twitter to take down links sharing the BBC documentary ‘India: The Modi Question.’ The order was passed under the emergency provisions of the Information Technology Rules, 2021, for allegedly casting “as persions on the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court of India, sowing divisions among various communities, and making unsubstantiated allegations regarding actions of foreign governments in India”.

What are the emergency provisions?

Under the Information Technology Rules, 2021 (IT Rules, 2021), the MIB has powers to issue content takedown notices to social media intermediaries like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook in emergency situations “for which no delay is acceptable”.

The Rules say that “In case of emergency nature, the Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting may, if he is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient and justifiable for blocking for public access of any information or part thereof through any computer resource and…as an interim measure issue such directions as he may consider necessary to such identified or identifiable persons, publishers or intermediary in control of such computer resource hosting such information or part thereof without giving him an opportunity of hearing.”

These emergency notices can be issued if the MIB believes that the content can impact the sovereignty, integrity, defence, or security of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order, or to prevent incitement to any cognisable offence.

How often have they been used?

Since 2021, the MIB has used the emergency provisions at least seven times, most prominently for YouTube. These seven instances are known because the Ministry communicated about the action through press releases.

However, in the case of the BBC documentary, the Ministry has not issued any release through its official channel, the Press Information Bureau, so far. The only information about the blocking orders having an official semblance came from former journalist Kanchan Gupta, who works as an advisor to the MIB and put out a tweet thread on 21 January 2023 about the move.

21 December 2021: The MIB ordered the blocking of 20 channels on YouTube and two websites spreading “anti-India propaganda” and fake news on the Internet. “The channels and websites belong to a coordinated disinformation network operating from Pakistan…,” the MIB had said. “The channels were used to post divisive content in a coordinated manner on topics like KashmirIndian Armyminority communities in India, Ram MandirGeneral Bipin Rawat, etc.”

21 January 2022: The MIB blocked 35 YouTube-based news channels, two Twitter accounts, two Instagram accounts, one Facebook account, and two websites involved in “spreading anti-India fake news” over digital media. The YouTube channels were all allegedly operating from Pakistan and apart from posting “sensitive” content related to the Indian Army, Jammu and Kashmir etc., were also posting content to undermine the democratic process of the upcoming elections in five states.

18 February 2022: The government blocked an unspecified number of apps, websites, and social media accounts of “Punjab Politics TV”, having close links with Sikhs For Justice (SFJ), an organisation declared unlawful in India. It found that the content had the potential to “incite communal disharmony and separatism”; and was detrimental to the “sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, and public order”.

4 April 2022: As many as 22 YouTube-based news channelsthree Twitter accountsone Facebook account, and one news website were blocked. Notably, this was the first time the MIB disclosed blocking Indian accounts – of the 22 YouTube accounts, 18 were from India. The blocked accounts were posting content related to the Indian Army and Jammu and Kashmir apart from “false content” related to the Ukraine crisis.

25 April 2022: Six Pakistan-based and 10 India-based YouTube news channels that were allegedly being used to spread fake news on matters related to national security, India’s foreign relations, communal harmony, and public order were blocked.

26 September 2022: Based on inputs from intelligence agencies, the MIB directed YouTube to block 45 videos from 10 channels. The content included fake news and morphed videos with the “intent to spread hatred among religious communities”. “Some of the videos blocked by the Ministry were being used to spread disinformation on issues related to Agnipath schemeIndian Armed ForcesIndia’s national security apparatusKashmir, etc.”

What can users whose content has been impacted do?

While the IT Rules, 2021 prescribe recourse options for users, those are limited to actions taken by a social media company. For instance, if a platform has on its own taken down some content, the user can approach the grievance officer of the platform to raise a dispute, which they are to redress within 15 days.

However, if a platform has taken down content on the basis of the emergency provisions in the Rules, the legislation does not offer any direct recourse.

The only option users have in this case is to approach courts. However, even that is tricky. By their very nature, the blocking orders are confidential, which means that users do not know the provisions under which their content was flagged. Besides that, how the government decided that a particular piece of content should be taken down is not known to citizens.

Platforms like Twitter voluntarily inform users that they have taken down their content based on the government’s request, and also share the information with the Lumen database, an independent research project studying takedown notices along with other legal removal requests. If not for that, users would probably never know why their content was taken down.


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