Intermediaries Guidelines may create an environment of distrust among consumers of online economy: CUTS International

TT Correspondent, February 12, 2019

CUTS International, a global policy research and advocacy group, organised a roundtable discussion on Evolving Role of Online Intermediaries: Retaining Trust, Re-imagining Safety, in association with CUTS Institute for Regulation and Competition on Tuesday. The discussion covered key aspects of the proposed amendments to the intermediaries guidelines and their likely impact on consumer trust in online economy.

Several stakeholders participated in the discussion, including policy influencers, former bureaucrats, industry representatives, academia, civil society, think tanks, media, among others. Mahesh Uppal, a senior sector expert and policy influencer, pointed out that the measures proposed by guidelines appear disproportionate to the problem they intend to solve. Prasanna, a lawyer and constitutional expert added that the guidelines may end up creating a chilling effect among intermediaries in online ecosystem, and reduce consumer welfare. Intermediaries are likely to err on the side of caution and go overboard in censoring content and free speech.

Sarabvir Singh from Centre for Communication and Governance, NLU Delhi stated several principles and doctrines which must be upheld in the amended guidelines, as laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India under the landmark cases – Shreya Singhal and Puttaswamy Judgment.

Naman Aggarwal from Access Now pointed out that the guidelines intend to offer a solution in search of a problem. The presumed problem of fake news is unlikely to be resolved by guidelines and other offline measures targeted at improving state capacity, empowering institutions, generating awareness and building capacity of stakeholders are more likely to be successful. It was noted that intent and implement ability of guidelines remain questionable and no attempt was made to design less intrusive means to achieve policy objectives. Kazim Rizvi, Founder, the Dialogue, mentioned that attempts to curb open nature of internet need to be resisted.

Swati Punia of CUTS presented findings of CUTS survey covering 2,160 respondents across six states in India on user perception, expectation and experience in online economy. Service providers are expected to use consumer data only for the purposes it was collected, uphold privacy and practice anonymisation. Their reputation is key in providing confidence to consumers for sharing their data. Thus, any unfair attempt to use consumer data for tracking purposes, or to remove the content they posted, without following due process, may breach the trust consumers have on online intermediaries.

The guidelines suffer with excessive delegation of powers and shift the burden of responsibility of identification of unlawful content from a government/ judiciary to intermediaries, who are not capable in making such decisions. Prasanto Roy, sector expert, observed that a graded approach to regulate information and intermediaries in online economy, depending on the associated risks, might be the way forward. Intermediaries are not the only ones who lack capacity but government also needs to play catch up with technological advancements. Ashutosh Chadha from Microsoft mentioned that intermediaries can help build technical capacity of government and aid them in better understanding technology.

Greater transparency and accountability of internal mechanisms of intermediaries are essential but they cannot act as replacement for government functions. There is a need to institutionalise good regulation making processes like regulatory impact assessment which necessitate cost-benefit analysis to prevent such knee-jerk reactions from the government, concluded Amol Kulkarni of CUTS who moderated the discussion.

Valuable contributions were also received from other participants from civil society organisations, which included those from SFLC, Koan Advisory, among others. Representatives of various service providers such as WhatsApp, Symantec etc., also voiced their perspectives during deliberations.

For any clarifications, please contact:

Vijay Singh:

Swati Punia: