Fake news on social media: Law & IT Minister favours evolving a policy

Future undecided for a MIB panel set up to explore online content regulations

NEW DELHI: The Indian government seems to be speaking in two voices over the menace of fake news. While law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad today said he would hold talks with stakeholders to evolve a policy, his junior SS Ahluwalia on Wednesday had told Parliament that the government doesn't propose to bring in regulations for social media.

Law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad informed the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) yesterday that he will hold discussion with stakeholders, including political parties, to evolve a policy to deal with the misuse of social media, according to a PTI report, which also quoted a government statement saying it has been conveyed to WhatsApp in "unmistakable terms" that it was a very serious issue that "deserves a more sensitive response".

The government yesterday also  shot off another notice to WhatsApp asking it to come out with effective solutions to curb the menace of fake news beyond just labelling forwards. It also warned the company that mediums used for propagation of rumours are liable to be treated as 'abettors' and can face legal consequences if they remain "mute spectators", the PTI report said.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp has been under fire from the Indian government over fake news and false information being circulated on its messaging platform. The government had in the past too issued a stern warning to the company to clamp down on hoax messages designed to "provoke" and "instigate" people.

"When rumours and fake news get propagated by mischief mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability. If they remain mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action," a PTI report quoted an IT Ministry statement as saying. The ministry said it has approached WhatsApp to bring more effective solutions to the table, to ensure greater "accountability and facilitate enforcement of law" beyond the existing efforts towards labelling forwards and identifying fake news.

The Supreme Court, earlier this week, asked Parliament to consider enacting a new law to effectively deal with incidents of mob lynching, saying "horrendous acts of mobocracy" cannot be allowed to become a new norm. 

“Government doesn't regulate content on social media sites": IT Ministry's SS Ahluwalia,  

On Wednesday, the Indian government admitted it doesn’t plan to regulate content on social media, as of now, despite the menace of fake news affecting the societal fabric. However, the government is quiet on the future of a committee set up under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) that has the mandate to explore regulation for online content, including those on OTT platforms.

“Government does not regulate content appearing on social media sites, and law enforcement and security agencies may take action on specific case to case basis as per law in force,” junior Minister for Electronics & Information Technology (MEITY) SS Ahluwalia informed Parliament on Wednesday, emphasizing that the government was fully “committed to freedom of speech and expression” and “privacy” of its citizens as enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Ahluwalia was asked about the steps being taken by the federal government to address the problem of fake news and whether there were any plans to monitor and regulate social media content.

According to the Minister, the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 has provisions for removal of objectionable online content that was “harmful, defamatory, hateful, libelous, objectionable” and affected minors, apart from the national security.

However, as the Minister was not asked, he did not dwell on the future of  a committee ---comprising representatives of various government organisations and few industry bodies too --- set up under the MIB to explore online content regulations. The setting up of the panel was criticized as it was outside the remit of the MIB as the issue concerned came under the jurisdiction of MEITY.

The said committee, helmed by MIB Secretary, is reported to have met a few times since its formation, but the details of those meetings are not public yet. Nor is the fact whether it would be disbanded or taken out MIB’s jurisdiction in favour of MEITY.

MIB Stresses on Self-Regulation To Fight Fake News Menace On TV

On Thursday, MIB Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore stressed on existing safeguards in laws and self-regulation to say that there was also no proposal to indulge in pre-censorship of TV channels to stop them from allegedly spreading fake news.

“The [Cable Television Networks Regulation] Act [1995] does not provide for pre-censorship of any programmes and advertisements telecast on TV channels. However, it prescribes that all programmes and advertisements telecast on such TV channels should be in conformity with the prescribed Programme Code and Advertising Code enshrined in the aforesaid Act and the rules framed thereunder,” Rathore informed fellow parliamentarians who were concerned about some TV channels spreading fake news.

Earlier, MIB, under minister Smriti Irani, had attempted to bring in regulations to control fake news, which had to be aborted as the Prime Minister's Office intervened in the aftermath of nation-wide criticism. Still, some critics feel that the botched attempt to bring in rules to rein in media critical of the government was testing of waters for future norms.

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