Editorials - 01-03-2021

Under the IT Act new rules, it appears that the interest is largely about trying to force technologists to fall in line

Last week, the Union Government issued a set of rules under the Information Technology Act, noting that it was superseding rules issued under Section 79 of that statute in 2011. Those earlier rules had specified the due diligence obligations that Internet intermediaries had to follow in order to qualify for the limited immunity for legal liability regarding user content, which Parliament had strengthened in 2008 when it amended that law.

Without discussion

The notification of these new rules, however, do not merely represent the executive branch superseding previous subordinate rules under a law with newer regulation. They represent a dramatic, dangerous move by the Union Government towards cementing increased censorship of Internet content and mandating compliance with government demands regarding user data collection and policing of online services in India. This has happened in the absence of open and public discussion of the full swathe of regulatory powers the government has sought to exercise, and without any parliamentary study and scrutiny.

Indeed, these rules at the outset appear unlawful even with respect to whether they could have been issued under the Information Technology Act in the manner chosen by the government, leave alone their constitutionality with respect to fundamental rights. The Union Government has chosen to pass these rules under the requirement to outline the due diligence that Internet intermediaries — ranging from telecom providers, search engines, Internet platforms hosting user generated content to cloud providers — have to follow in order to be able to claim their qualified legal immunity under Section 79 of the IT Act.

Curious stand

The government’s gazette notification has further claimed that the rules were also issued under the legal authority to specific procedure for blocking web content under Section 69A of the IT Act. This is curious, given that rules overseeing government web content blocking powers have already been issued for that section in 2009, and not superseded. Indeed, they form the core of the increasing number of web content censorship orders issued by the Union Government in recent years, including the most recent controversial stand-off with Twitter following the farmer protests.

The ability to issue rules under a statute — i.e. to frame subordinate legislation — is by its nature a limited, constrained power. When the Union Government issues subordinate rules, it is limited to the substantive provisions laid out by Parliament in the original act passed by the latter — the executive branch is subordinate to what Parliament has permitted it and cannot use its rule-making power to seek to issue primary legislation by itself.

Directives and mandates

Unfortunately, with the present Internet content and social media rules, the Union Government has done precisely that. Instead of specifying the basic due diligence requirements intermediaries had to perform in order to make use of the Section 79 safe harbour provision, the executive branch has created new rules that apply only to “significant social media intermediaries” — a term that appears nowhere in the Information Technology Act.

It has included mandates for retention of user data by such intermediaries for use by government agencies and clauses on how popular messaging services have to enable the tracing of the original creator of a message (which is regarded as not possible for end-to-end encrypted messaging services without introducing flaws in their systems) even though the sections in the law cited by the government do not give them that power.

The rules have grown to include a chapter on how digital news sites have to be registered before the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and further laid out a mechanism by which streaming video sites featuring original content (which are generally not regarded as intermediaries for the purposes of Internet law) have to agree to a government-supervised “self regulatory system”. This, even though digital news service registration is not required under the IT Act and streaming video content has not been included under the ambit of the Cinematograph Act. In any other situation, the package contained in this gazette notification last week would be instead included in a bill sent to Parliament for its consideration — and which would be regarded as ambitious and controversial for any administration.

The message is clear

Why has the Union Government created this legally uncertain, sprawling house-of-cards-like regulatory instrument? To understand these new Internet content control rules — for that is what they essentially are — you need to not only see what they directly give to the government, but what the government is seeking to get done behind a shadow of regulatory pressure. It appears that the government wants to send a message to all Internet ecosystem players that they desire compliance with their desires — formal or informal — regarding what content should be taken down, along with a removal of any push back against over broad demands for user data and other surveillance orders by government agencies.

The Government of India already has significant legal powers, with practically no institutionalised oversight or true checks and balances, to force censorship and surveillance on Internet platforms and other web services in India.

However, the increasing public discussion of concerns regarding the usage of these powers and challenges being made by firms and impacted individuals against their abuse is something that the Union Government would like to avoid. Why issue direct formal orders when one can instead force compliance in less visible, more institutionalised ways? Indicating that the government has made up its mind to force these mandates by notifying them, even with doubtful legal validity, is a key signalling effect to Internet ecosystem players, especially firms keen to avoid public battles and smaller entities who do not have the resources or political position to be able to contest overboard government directives.

The Union Government, when issuing these rules, made reference to increased global interest in regulating Big Tech. However, in advancing Internet content control interests and increased requirements around government demands for user data, while not advancing surveillance law reform or enacting a strong statutory data protection framework, it appears that the interest is more in advancing Big Government and trying to force technologists to fall in line, no matter the cost to our fundamental rights in our Internet age.

Raman Jit Singh Chima is Senior International Counsel and Asia Pacific Policy Director, Global Cybersecurity Lead, Access Now

The new Constitution is being trampled upon due to the political ambition of key players

On February 23, Nepal’s Supreme Court reinstated the House of Representatives, which had been dissolved by Prime Minister K.P. Oli on December 20, responding to an attempt to unseat him from leadership of his own parliamentary party in the lower house. After hearing more than a hundred lawyers from both sides, amidst a polarised political environment, the five-judge Constitutional Bench led by Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher J.B. Rana delivered a verdict that throws the ball back to the House.

Dissolution of Parliament

Some hoped and others worried that the Bench would go along with the dissolution, allowing the general elections as had been called for in April-May by Mr. Oli. The Bench preferred a strict reading of the Constitution, which asserts that Parliament may not be dissolved until all options to form a government (by majority party, a coalition, a minority party, or by a member of the House trusted by the President) have been exhausted. These tight provisions were placed in the Constitution by the framers, including those in Mr. Oli’s cohort who were then members of the Constituent Assembly, to ensure continuity in governance, especially given the quick and easy dissolutions in the past and ensuing instabilities.

The Constitution has other unique provisions to ensure political stability, including one that does not allow a vote of confidence to be brought for the first two years of a Prime Minister’s five-year term. A no-confidence vote must include the name of the prime ministerial candidate, and if the vote fails, another motion may not be brought for a year.

Before the Bench, the Prime Minister’s side argued that the Constitution’s declaration of Nepal as a parliamentary democracy had no meaning if a Prime Minister commanding majority in the House did not have the right to disband it. In its unanimous judgment, the Bench maintained that Nepal did not need to look at the procedures of other parliamentary democracies in the instant case; that national experience and provisions of the Constitution should suffice.

Even though the Constitutional Bench did not censure him for mal-intent as demanded by the petitioners, Mr. Oli would be feeling out on a limb. While the healthy future of parliamentary practice may require constitutional amendment to allow a sitting Prime Minister to recommend dissolution and elections, for now, the Supreme Court has removed constitutional uncertainty.

There was method to what some might see as Mr. Oli’s madness, and it has to do with his inability to manage the ambitions of his Nepal Communist Party (NCP) co-chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (‘Prachanda’). In 2017, during the Dasain (Dushhera) holidays, Mr. Oli had secretively reached out to Mr. Dahal to unify the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) with his Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist). It was a strange coming together of a communist party that had accepted multiparty democracy and the Maoists led by a sweet-talking demagogue. The unification was a windfall for Mr. Dahal and his fast-declining party. It also seemed an unworkable experiment that sooner or later would bring grief to the polity.

Even as Mr. Oli took the reins of power, Mr. Dahal initiated his two-pronged strategy of selective media capture and weaning away UML stalwarts by feeding their sense of grievance and powerlessness vis-à-vis the imperious Mr. Oli. In particular, Mr. Dahal worked on former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, who had been defeated by Mr. Oli for the post of Chairman in the UML general convention. Mr. Dahal dangled the carrot of presidency before former Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal.

Mr. Dahal moved quickly to encircle and tie down the Prime Minister. Using the proxy of his Maoist subordinate Agni Sapkota, made Speaker even with a murder charge pending before the Supreme Court, Mr. Dahal blocked constitutional appointments and sabotaged the government’s attempt to receive a $500 million U.S. grant to expand the national electricity grid. Increasingly, the so-called ‘Secretariat’ of senior NCP leaders sought to direct government affairs, as if Nepal’s was a single-party communist system.

It was when Mr. Oli got word that the Dahal group was registering a no-confidence motion that he moved immediately to dissolve Parliament. The motion arrived in the Parliament office after the dissolution declaration, but Mr. Sapkota forged the paperwork to bring forward the time of registration. A reckoning on that episode is still required, now that the House is restored.

Mr. Oli’s dissolution of Parliament triggered a vehement response with many accusing him of authoritarian tendencies. President Bidya Devi Bhandari was pilloried for having readily okayed the Prime Minister’s move. She might have sat on his communication for a day or two, but the 2015 Constitution does not give the President leeway to question the chief executive’s recommendations, not even the privilege of consultations which was available to former President Ram Baran Yadav under the interim Constitution of 2007.

Mr. Dahal threatened a violent movement should the Justices decide to certify the dissolution and elections. A civil society stalwart warned that “the people would drag the Justices out on to the streets” if they approved Mr. Oli’s recommendation. Four former Chief Justices published a statement against dissolution in what could be seen as an attempt to influence the Bench. Neither could former President Yadav hold back.

Only in Nepal

With the verdict given, it is not clear what the inter-party permutations and combinations will deliver in the days to come, or what fate awaits each of the topmost players. But without doubt, the role of Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba will be decisive because of the MPs he holds — whether to become Prime Minister himself, back the Dahal combine, or allow Mr. Oli to serve out the next two years.

The Supreme Court has ordered the House to convene before March 8, and rather than wait for a no-confidence motion to be brought by the Dahal group, Mr. Oli is likely to seek confidence of the House. However, because the present crisis is not one between the opposition and party in power, but within the latter, the future course will rest on Mr. Dahal’s ability to unseat Mr. Oli as parliamentary party leader. At present, the Oli-Dahal support in the NCP parliamentary party is said to be more or less equal, each numbering in the 80s. (Altogether 138 MPs are required to form the government.)

For all the hullabaloo, the NCP party has not split formally, although the chasm within the leadership is deep. Even if the rank and file seek unity for the sake of elections, it is unlikely that the feuding leaders will be able to patch up.

For the long-term health of the polity, a decisive divorce between the former Maoists and the erstwhile CPN-UML is recommended. Ideology does not bind the two — the ‘democrat communists’ in the UML fold and the Maoists led by Mr. Dahal, whose concept of governance does not include democracy if he can help it, and who is yet to concede the need for accountability for grievous crimes committed during the 10-years of the rebellion he led.

Meanwhile, one cannot even make an educated guess as to who will become the next Prime Minister among the four former Prime Ministers — Mr. Deuba, Mr. Nepal, Mr. Oli or Mr. Dahal.

Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is founding Editor of the magazine ‘Himal Southasian’

Collectively, Indians have a responsibility to take forward the country’s rich and varied legacy of science

National Science Day, which fell on February 28, commemorates a path-breaking discovery at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Calcutta in 1928, that came to be known as the Raman Effect. Three more physicists from Calcutta, namely Jagadish Chandra Bose who was C.V. Raman’s senior, Satyendra Nath Bose and Meghnad Saha, both of whom were Raman’s juniors, had by then made major contributions that were globally acclaimed.

But Raman’s discovery marks the pinnacle for which he would win the Nobel Prize in physics two years later, making him the most visible face of Indian science.

Pursuing scientific truth

It seems very thoughtful and rational that our National Science Day celebrates a discovery and not the birthday of its discoverer. Raman, as a person, was not beyond criticism. The circumstances of his exit from Calcutta where he spent his most productive years, the reasons for his relinquishing the post of Director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore before completion of his term, differences with Meghnad Saha, and non-sharing of credit for his discovery with K.S. Krishnan make him appear as arrogant, and not above common human foibles.

But none of these can diminish Raman’s unquestioned scientific prowess and his life-long devotion to the pursuit of scientific truth (through physics).

Objective assessment

It is thanks to the untiring efforts of Dr. Rajinder Singh, noted historian of science from the University of Oldenburg, Germany, who has authored six books and 28 essays on Raman, that a clear picture of Raman and his time emerges.

While Dr. Singh has dispelled with supporting evidence many myths such as Raman’s breaking into tears while accepting the Nobel Prize because he felt humiliated as the honour had to be received under the British flag, or that Raman had worked with very little equipment and insufficient support, these books, read together, (most of which are available in digital version) provide an objective assessment of Raman, the man and the scientist. Two books in particular,Nobel Laureate C.V. Raman’s Work on Light Scattering(Logos Verlag, Berlin, 2004) andC.V. Raman’s Laboratory and Discovery of the Raman Effect(Shaker Verlag, Aachen, 2018) analyse the process, essence and significance of his work. Since history judges a person by the peaks of his achievement, Raman’s standing as an outstanding physicist remains unscathed.

India has progressed a great deal in about a century after the major advances made by the Bose(s), Saha and Raman. Even though none so far, working in India, has personally scaled those heights, our achievements, on the whole, on the application of science and technology in fields such as atomic energy, space research, agriculture and biotechnology have been impressive. Noted historians of science and practising scientists have also been articulating their views on how India can develop as a hub for world-class scientific and technological innovation.

Two recent developments, namely the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) and the draft National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy 2020 (draft STIP), despite having limitations that characterise any government publication, underscore some of the pathways to this direction. The importance of languages has been highlighted in the NEP. S.N. Bose and others had been advocating from the 1940s for the use of the mother languages for science teaching and popularisation. This is an area that requires serious attention. Similarly, the setting up of the National Research Foundation, for instance, to encourage and fund research and development activities, hopefully with much greater and intensive involvement of our university system than hitherto, seems to be a step in the right direction.

Fostering research

The draft STIP has also mooted substantial ideas in order to promote research and innovation and develop ‘a robust system for evidence and stakeholder-driven STI planning … and policy research in India’. The proposal for a Research Excellence Framework for higher educational institutions, once reconciled with the relevant provisions of the NEP, can make a qualitative difference. Likewise, fostering science and technology-enabled entrepreneurship and mainstreaming grassroot innovation and traditional knowledge systems (validated by modern scientific methods of evaluation and assessment) are proposals worth pursuing. It is hoped that the final document would seriously take cognisance of the comments and criticisms on the draft STIP and facilitate India transforming itself to a forward-looking, science-enabled and science-respecting nation.

Though the state has a key role to play in this process, science requires to be handled with a light hand. The revised guidelines of the Education Ministry this January, about prior permission to be taken, under certain circumstances, before conducting even online/virtual conferences, etc., caused anxiety among some scientists and academics who had voiced their displeasure. Fortunately, this revision has been withdrawn.

Keeping the flame burning

The celebration of National Science Day with the basic objective of spreading the message of science and its importance in improving the lives of people, must be taken forward in the days ahead and should spur a national reawakening instead of being just a ritual. India has a long history of secular enquiry and free thoughts. From Aryabhata, Varāhamihira and Bhāskarācārya to the great scientists of modern India, the tradition of illuminating the world of science continues. Illustrious women like Janaki Ammal (botanist), Asima Chatterjee (chemist), Bibha Chowdhuri (physicist) and Gagandeep Kang (medical scientist) have kept this flame burning. Collectively, we have to take forward the legacy instead of wasting our time indulging in obscurantism, unscientific and unsubstantiated claims. It is only then that the purpose of observing the Day will be fulfilled and the spirit of Raman’s unswerving dedication to science be honoured.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is a former IAS officer who has also worked in the private sector and with the UNDP

The new guidelines to regulate digital content give the executive unbridled power without any checks and balances

The new governmental guidelines to regulate digital content raise a fundamental legal and ethical question: are they contra constitutional? For many advocates of the freedom of expression, the guidelines virtually undermine the enabling provisions of Article 19 of the Constitution and weaponise the restrictive clause of reasonable restriction, without really spelling out what constitutes reasonable restriction.

Under the guidelines, it appears as if the citizens have been empowered and that there is now a fair grievance redressal mechanism for users of digital platforms. The guidelines include social media sites, messaging apps, over-the-top streaming services (popularly known as OTT services), and digital news publishers.

Tricky new rule

Some tend to confuse the grievance redressal officers to be appointed under the new directive with a news ombudsman and argue that the government has come up with a “soft touch” self-regulatory mechanism. The idea of self-regulation is to have a visible mechanism to correct errors that creep into the public sphere despite the existence of a multi-tiered gate-keeping process. There is an accepted value system, defined in codes developed over a period of nearly a century.

However, while looking at the details of the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, it is clear that there is executive overreach and this is not an attempt to empower citizen’s right to free speech and free expression. The tricky new rule states that big social media companies will have to take down unlawful content within a specific time frame of being served either a court order or notice by an appropriate government agency. There has been no satisfactory answer from the government on what basis it issues a takedown instruction, which is always euphemistically called a takedown request, to major social media platforms.

SinceShreya Singhal v. Union of India(2015), the debate over the constitutionality of the content takedown regime under Section 69A of the IT Act (and the Blocking Rules issued under it) has been raging. For instance, constitutional lawyer Gautam Bhatia has pointed out three important elements in the ‘Blocking Rules’. One, the Rules do not provide for an appeals process. Two, there is a contradiction between Rule 15 that requires that Designated Officer to maintain records of blocking requests and actions taken and Rule 16 that stipulates that “strict confidentiality shall be maintained regarding all the requests and complaints received and actions taken thereof.” Three, for the last five years, he has been arguing that there is need to file a review petition to seek clarity on a host of issues arising out of this judgment. The new rules pave the way for more opacity and secrecy rather than transparency and accountability.

Unbridled power for the executive

If the earlier regulatory framework was murky with many lines blurred and the onus of responsibility constantly oscillating between the originator and the intermediaries, the new guidelines give the executive unbridled power without any checks and balances. From arbitrary takedown notices to selective shutting down of Internet services, the executive has been arming itself against the citizens, and the two important estates of the democracy — the legislature and the judiciary — are not sufficiently reflecting on the question of overreach. In a polarised environment, an informed debate is restricted to some print and online organisations.

While presenting the guidelines, Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the guidelines constituted a “soft touch oversight” mechanism to deal with issues such as the persistent spread of fake news and other misinformation. He added: “Social media is welcome to do business in India… they have got good business and have also empowered ordinary Indians. But it is very important that crores of social media users be given a proper forum for resolution of their grievances in a time bound manner against the abuse and misuse of social media.” This reminded me of the good old saying that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’.

For those who are working on issues relating to individual privacy, the introduction of end-to-end encryption was seen as a technical solution to a truly vexatious issue. However, under the new rule, social media intermediaries must enable tracing of the originator of information on their platform if required by a competent authority. This is indeed a new panopticon.


The CIA report on Khashoggi will not lead to a major reversal or even re-evaluation of U.S.-Saudi ties

The case of the “smoking saw”, to use U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham’s phrase, is solved. The declassified version of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report on journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder states in no uncertain terms “that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved [the] operation…to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” It bases this conclusion on the evidence that the persons responsible for the crime were members of the security detail of the Crown Prince, who is popularly known as MBS, and reported to his close advisers. It argues that an operation of this nature could not have been conducted without his approval. Although the declassified version does not provide the gory details of the heinous act, it is common knowledge, thanks to revelations made by Turkish intelligence, that Khashoggi’s body was dismembered with an electric saw before its final disposal.

A short-term recalibration

The U.S. Congress had been demanding for over a year that the report be declassified but former President Donald Trump had refused to do so because of his and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner’s cosy relationship with MBS as well as Mr. Trump’s interest in selling massive amounts of arms to the petrostate.

However, the release of the report does not mean a major reversal or even re-evaluation of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. It only signifies a short term “recalibration” of Washington’s approach towards the Kingdom. It is primarily a public relations exercise undertaken to assuage Congressional anger and to appease the human rights constituency. This was indicated by the fact that although some sanctions were imposed on a few Saudis, MBS was not subjected to any penalties.

President Joe Biden’s call to King Salman the day before the document’s release reinforces this message. It made no mention of the imminent release of the damning report and instead assured the Saudi monarch of America’s continued support for his country’s security. According to the White House, Mr. Biden “discussed regional security, including the renewed diplomatic efforts led by the United Nations and the United States to end the war in Yemen, and the U.S. commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups.”

Balancing act

These actions demonstrate that Mr. Biden is engaged in a balancing act aimed at assuaging domestic anger at the Saudi government’s role in the murder of an American resident and a columnist forThe Washington Postwhile preserving America’s long-standing strategic and economic relationship with the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance for Washington derives from the fact that it is America’s principal regional partner in its efforts to contain Iranian influence in West Asia. Riyadh’s strategic value has increased with the sequential normalisation of Israel’s relations with Arab countries allied to it since the success of this process is heavily dependent upon Saudi approval. Such normalisation suits Washington, for it relieves pressure on it to address the Palestinian issue.

Furthermore, Mr. Biden cannot afford to alienate the Saudi regime beyond a point because this could intensify Riyadh’s opposition to his stated intention of returning to the Iran nuclear deal. Saudi Arabia may decide to go public on this issue in conjunction with Israel, which also considers Iran its mortal enemy.

While the U.S. is no longer dependent on Gulf oil, the importance of Saudi Arabia as the swing producer of oil for the health of the global economy on which U.S. prosperity depends rules out any possibility of the Biden administration punishing the regime for its human rights transgressions. Once the brouhaha over the CIA report blows over, one can expect Washington and Riyadh to return to business as usual. Realpolitik will, as has always been the case, trump human rights concerns.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

Instead of soft-touch monitoring, the government has opted for predatory new rules

The new rules introduced by the Centre last week to regulate all types of digital platforms, with the idea of redressing user grievances and ensuring compliance with the law, are deeply unsettling as they will end up giving the government a good deal of leverage over online news publishers and intermediaries. This holds troubling implications for freedom of expression and right to information. Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, while launching ‘The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021’, presented it as a “soft-touch oversight mechanism”. A government press note termed it “progressive” and “liberal”. It also claimed the rules seek to “address people’s varied concerns while removing any misapprehension about curbing creativity and freedom of speech and expression”. The soft tone notwithstanding, these rules force digital news publishers and video streaming services to adhere to a cumbersome three-tier structure of regulation, with a government committee at its apex. This, in itself, is unprecedented in a country where the news media have been given the space all along to self-regulate, based on the mature understanding that any government presence could have a chilling effect on free speech and conversations. That the new rules pertain only to digital news media, and not to the whole of the news media, hardly provides comfort, as the former is increasingly becoming a prime source of news and views. Further, it is of significant concern that the purview of the IT Act, 2000, has been expanded to bring digital news media under its regulatory ambit without legislative action, which digital liberties organisations such as the Internet Freedom Foundation have flagged.

The three-tier regulatory mechanism will seek to redress complaints with respect to the digital platforms’ adherence to a Code of Ethics, which among other things includes the ‘Norms of Journalistic Conduct’, compiled by the Press Council of India, the Programme Code of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, as also a negative list of content that shall not be published (essentially what one would encounter under law as reasonable restrictions to free speech). While there is not much that is wrong with the Code of Ethicsper se, what is problematic is that it will take little to bring this regulatory mechanism to vicious life. According to the rules, “Any person having a grievance regarding content published by a publisher in relation to the Code of Ethics may furnish his grievance on the grievance mechanism established by the publisher.” So, literally anyone could force a digital platform to take up any issue. It has to be taken up first, under the new rules, by the digital platform’s grievance officer. If there is no resolution or if the complainant is dissatisfied, this can be escalated to a “self-regulating” body of publishers. This can then be escalated to the highest level, the government’s Oversight Mechanism, according to which an inter-departmental committee will be set up to address the grievance. Apart from imposing a compliance burden on digital publishers — many are small entities — this also opens the floodgates for all kinds of interventions. The potential for misuse is enormous.

The new rules have increased the compliance burden for social media platforms too. The bigger of these platforms will have to appoint chief compliance officers, to ensure the rules and the laws are adhered to, and a nodal officer, with whom the law enforcement agencies will be coordinating, apart from a grievance officer. Such platforms in the messaging space will have to “enable the identification of the first originator of the information on its computer resource” based on a judicial order. Thus, the rules require messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Signal to trace problematic messages to the originator. While the triggers for a judicial order that require such an identification are serious offences, it raises uneasy questions about how such apps will be able to adhere to such orders, as their messages are encrypted end-to-end. There is no denying that there are problems with online content, which the government has rightly highlighted now. Its release has referred to a 2018 Supreme Court observation that the government “may frame necessary guidelines to eliminate child pornography, rape and gangrape imageries, videos and sites in content hosting platforms and other applications”, besides making a mention of discussions in Parliament about social media misuse and fake news.

Some amount of tightening of policy is inevitable given new challenges. But it would be wrong to imagine that by implanting itself in the grievance redress process or by making platforms share more information, the government can solve these problems. It could prove counterproductive in a country where the citizens still do not have a data privacy law to guard themselves against excesses committed by any party. Regulation has an important place in the scheme of things, and no one advocates giving a free pass to the digital platforms. But then, as this newspaper argued earlier, the laws to combat unlawful content are already in place. What is required is their uniform application. It is also far from reassuring that this government has had an uneasy, sometimes unpleasant, relationship with media in general. The appetite for criticism, so vital in a democracy, is just not there. Some weeks ago, the government had a run-in with Twitter after it defied orders to ban certain hashtags and handles. And given an environment where people are sensitive to content, the regulatory mechanism could become an operational nightmare. Worse, the casualties could be creativity and freedom of expression. The government would like to see itself as a watchdog of digital content in the larger public interest, but it comes across as a predator.

The question of repairs of the sacred shrine at Srirangam, dedicated to Sri Ranganathaswamy, has already been the subject of comments in our columns and our attention is now drawn to a memorial submitted to H.E. the Governor of Madras, by the Vishnu Bakthas and those interested in the preservation of this ancient temple from decay and destruction.

The memorial refers to the report of the Collector of Trichinopoly dated 14th February 1828, where it is stated, “As the allowance of the pagoda was formerly so much higher than it, at present is, the pagoda should always possess claims on the Government for the performance of such repairs as it might actually require.”

The government seem to have approved of the suggestion of the then Collector, and they have, since then, been paying Rs. 35,000 per year retaining in their hands “as a trust” the withheld portion of the former allowance of Rs. 40, 178-14-3 for repairs. It is also stated that the order of transfer of temple management from Government to Trustees did not refer to repairs, nor were the surplus funds “admittedly in deposit” handed over to the Trustees.

Mr. V.K. Krishna Menon, former Union Defence Minister, to-day [Trivandrum, February 28] denied the charge that he had money in foreign banks.

Addressing an election meeting here to-day, Mr. Menon said that he proposed to take legal action against the C.P.I. State Secretary and the Editor of the party organJanayugom, if they did not tender an apology for publishing a report alleging that he was receiving large sums of foreign money for election purposes. The report, Mr. Menon said, had stated that a purse that he had mislaid at Cochin airport contained foreign cheques. Mr. Menon said that it was a “most reprehensible character assassination.”

Though associated with the communists for over 40 years, he said he had not come across any responsible communist attacking his character either in England or in India. There were also other portions in the report which were extremely objectionable, he said.