New intermediary rules should take consumer welfare into account: CUTS

ET Telecom, March 01, 2021

The recently notified Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code), 2021 (Rules) should take into account consumer welfare to become successful, said industry body CUTS International on Monday.

“Under the rules, both government and industry expect each other to act objectively and fairly in the interest of consumers. However, in their current form, the Rules do not envisage any engagement with consumers or consumer representatives in their design of enforcement. Consumer welfare needs to be the guiding principle for the Rules to be successful,” noted Pradeep S Mehta, Secretary General, CUTS International.

The Central government on Thursday last week brought into effect new and stricter rules for social media intermediaries such as Facebook and WhatsApp to identify the originator of “unlawful” messages within a stipulated time. These new intermediary rules also provide for taking down such content within a specific time frame along with setting up grievance redressal mechanisms and assisting agencies in investigations.

The three-tier grievance redressal structure as envisaged by the Code of Ethics for Digital Media does not take into account the role of consumer or consumer organisations, it noted.

Out Of these three-tiers, the first two tiers will be held by the industry while the last one will be dominated by the government.

CUTS noted that the guidelines also rely on periodic disclosures to address concerns regarding information inequality which have not been successful in the past.

“Absence of consumer participation may result in such reforms stopping short in their tracks”, Mehta further said.

Additionally, CUTS noted that the intention to merge intermediary guidelines and digital media ethics code remains unclear as both the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Ministry of Electronics and IT would be overseeing the same set of rules, indicating inadequate consultation with respect to the digital media ethics code.

The guidelines have also given many powers to the government and in that context, the state and its agencies may bypass judicial oversight while exercising these powers which can hamper free speech, highlighted Mehta.

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