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Monday, October 25 2021

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Is IT Act a journey towards mass surveillance?

The IT Act of 2021 has created quite a row in the public sphere due to its friction with Twitter, WhatsApp and persisting loopholes. Originating from the E-commerce Act of 1998 under the then Ministry of Commerce, Information and Technology Act, the Act came into existence in 2000. Post amendments made in 2008 and 2011, IT Act 2021 is expected to stand as a milestone in regulating the hype in online harassments and economic frauds.

On February 21, 2021, the Government of India notified IT – Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, a set of guidelines applicable to the intermediaries like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter etc., the popular social media platforms.

As per the ethics code, the intermediary networks are bound to follow the law of the land or will have to be ready to lose its immunity under safe harbour provision. Safe harbour provision will save the intermediary networks from being liable to any of the derogatory contents posted but its users. Losing a safe harbour simply means, the intermediary networks will face consequences for the mistake caused by its users.

In an internet era where a single spark kindled through social media could lead to a communal riot, such a law seems essential. At the same time as a matter of practical reality, the Act seems to facilitate the provision to suppress the voice of dissent and curb the freedom of speech and expression. To state example;

When Covid – 19 was on hype in India, certain eminent Twitter handles sought medical aid, oxygen and questioned the capabilities of the government in dealing with the pandemic. With no time the accounts were blocked.

Recently, stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui posted a satire on his Twitter account and got the content blocked. The post read:

Satire in its very nature aims to point out the loopholes in a society or individual in an artistic or creative way. Blocking of content which defames the government will simply shift the actual objective of the act and portray it to be no less than the press censorship introduced during British times.

George Orwell in the novel 1984 describes a nation “Oceania” which has an omnipresent government. People of Oceania are bound to follow what the government says and each house and work place in Oceania is fitted with tele screens and hidden microphones to monitor the people. A single word of dissent against the government will lead to the vanishing of the individual!

Current IT Act orders the intermediaries to trace the origin of any particular content. For example, the initial sender of the WhatsApp forward message should be traced if the government asks to do so. Thus, such a provision will compel the intermediaries to break the existing end-to-end encrypted conversation system, which means anyone and everyone getting access to individual conversations in a clear breach of privacy, similar to that of the nation -Oceania.

Certain procedural wrongs like that of not being introduced in any houses of the Parliament nor keeping exclusively open for stakeholders’ opinion have further facilitated a negative remark on the Act.

When legislative wrongs encourage the coming governments to follow the same, breaching one’s privacy poses a question on an individual’s existence. A transparent law which could protect the sovereignty, security and integrity of the nation with minimal executive interference is the current need.

Image by Gerd Altmann

Sumayya Parveen A.

Sumayya is a Journalism, Eng. Literature and History Graduate & IAS Aspirant. She is also a budding writer and poetess.

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