The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (“MIB”), in exercise of its powers under Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“Digital Media Rules”), issued two orders on 22nd April 2022 for blocking of 16 YouTube based news channels and 1 Facebook account for spreading fake news on India’s foreign relations, national security, public order and communal harmony. The MIB had earlier issued similar orders for blocking websites, channels and social media accounts.
- The MIB noted in its press release that none of the digital news publishers had furnished information about the details of its entity to the Ministry as required under Rule 18 of the Digital Media Rules.
- The content published by some of the blocked accounts sought to incite hatred among the members of various religious communities.
- The blocked accounts also resorted to publication of unverified news and videos having the potential to create panic among various sections of the society. For eg. False claims related to announcement of a pan-India lockdown due to COVID-19 thereby threatening the migrant workers.
- Some YouTube channels based in Pakistan were found to have been used in a coordinated manner to post fake news about India on various subjects such as the Jammu and Kashmir, Indian Army, etc.
The broad power to block access to information is derived from Section 69A(1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (“IT Act”). It empowers the Central Government’s authorised officers to issue blocking orders if it is in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to the above.
As per the Digital Media Rules, the Ministry constitutes an interdepartmental committee consisting of officials from departments such as law, information technology, home affairs, external affairs, etc. for hearing grievances, and mandates the appointment of an ‘authorised officer’ not below the rank of Joint Secretary to the Government of India for the purpose of issuing blocking orders. Rule 15 mandates that the ‘authorised officer’ shall place before the Secretary, MIB the recommendations for blocking content/information made by the interdepartmental committee. On approval of the Secretary, MIB, the authorised officer can direct any person/publisher/intermediary to delete/modify/block the relevant content/information.
Rule 16 of the Digital Media Rules empowers the authorised officer to bypass the interdepartmental committee and directly submit a recommendation to the Secretary, MIB in case of emergency. The Secretary, MIB can proceed to issue emergency orders for blocking information/content without giving an opportunity of hearing to the person, publisher, or intermediary hosting such information/content. Subsequently, the authorised officer, within 48 hours, must bring the blocking request before the interdepartmental committee for their ex post facto approval. In case the interdepartmental committee thinks fit, the blocking request can be denied, and the information/content blocked by earlier order can be unblocked by the relevant person/publisher/intermediary. The blocking orders issued under Rule 16 of the Digital Media Rules are applicable to publishers of news and current affairs content and intermediaries.
There is a legitimate need for expeditious decision making for blocking content/information in order to address law and order situations. However, blocking content/information and blocking orders can benefit greatly through more transparency. Transparency in adopting such practices will significantly increase legitimacy and garner public support for such measures. A cue should be taken from the recent order of the Delhi High Court in Tanul Thakur v Union of India wherein the Hon’ble Court directed the Committee constituted by Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology under the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 to give a post-decisional hearing to a party whose content had been blocked by the competent authorities. Furthermore, the Hon’ble Court directed that a copy of the original blocking order, after redacting the portion pertaining to the third parties, shall also be furnished to the petitioner. Instituting measures for ensuring transparency, specifically in post-decisional hearing for blocking orders, and also disclosing processes undertaken to identify the publishers of information/content (which are the subject of blocking orders) imparts clarity on the mechanism involved thereby instilling public awareness and public confidence.
PIB Release dated 25th April 2022 – Ministry of I&B blocks 16 YouTube news channels for spreading disinformation related to India’s national security, foreign relations and public order – https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1819892
PIB Release dated 5th April 2022 – Ministry of I&B blocks 22 YouTube channels for spreading disinformation related to India’s national security, foreign relations and public order – https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1813603
PIB Release dated 21st January 2022 – 35 YouTube channels, 2 websites blocked for spreading anti-India fake news – https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1791547
PIB Release dated 21st December 2021 – 20 YouTube Channels, 2 websites blocked for spreading anti-India propaganda –https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1783804