Any piece of news that has been identified as “fake” by the fact-checking unit of the Press Information Bureau (PIB) – the Centre’s nodal agency to share news updates – will not be allowed on online intermediaries, including social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) has said in a draft proposal.
As MeitY uploaded a new draft of amendments to the Information Technology Rules, 2021, on Tuesday to include regulations for online gaming platforms, it has significantly changed the proposal’s scope to include this new provision. The proposal has alarmed members of civil society, who fear that anything the government contradicts could potentially become a ground for content takedowns.
The latest proposal suggests that there is now potential for content takedowns because something has been flagged as fake news by the PIB. The purview of the proposal could go much further than that – it says that content that has been marked as misleading by “any other agency authorised by the government for fact-checking” or “in respect of any business of the Centre” will not be allowed on online intermediaries.
The requirement has been added under due diligence requirements that intermediaries need to follow to enjoy safe harbour, which is legal immunity from third-party content they host. Intermediaries essentially allow users to access services on the internet, and the proposed changes to the rules mean that not just social media platforms but internet service providers and web hosting providers – who are all classified as intermediaries currently – will have to follow the rules if notified with this provision.
This means that if a piece of news has been flagged as fake or false by either the PIB or any other fact-checking agency authorised by the government, internet service providers will also have to disable the link to that particular news piece. MeitY did not respond to an immediate request for comment.
PIB’s fact-checking unit was set up in 2019 to verify news related to the government’s ministries, departments and schemes. It routinely flags information about the government it believes is fake or misleading, albeit rarely explaining why it has flagged a particular piece of information. PIB’s fact-checking unit has itself, at times, tweeted incorrect information – for instance, in 2020, it stamped a genuine recruitment notice of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) as fake, and the Publications Division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had to point out the incorrect ‘fact-check’.
Experts said that if the provision is notified, it could potentially set a “dangerous” precedent.
“According to the draft, it will be an obligation on intermediaries that they cannot have content marked false by PIB or any other agency approved by the government. Beyond intermediaries, it would apply to the entirety of the technology stack, including hosting service providers and internet service providers,” Prateek Waghre, policy director at the Delhi-based digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation told The Indian Express.
“That is dangerous because it sets a scenario that any news item inconvenient for the government can be flagged as fake by the PIB fact-checking unit and then be taken down,” he added.