Intermediary Liability in India: Chilling Effects on Free Expression on the Internet
Intermediaries are widely recognised as essential cogs in the wheel of exercising the right to freedom of expression on the Internet. Most major jurisdictions around the world have introduced legislations for limiting intermediary liability in order to ensure that this wheel does not stop spinning. With the 2008 amendment of the Information Technology Act 2000, India joined the bandwagon and established a ‘notice and takedown’ regime for limiting intermediary liability.
On the 11th of April 2011, the Government of India notified the ‘Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2011’ that prescribe, amongst other things, guidelines for administration of takedowns by intermediaries. The Rules have been criticised extensively by both the national and the international media. The media has projected that the Rules, contrary to the objective of promoting free expression, seem to encourage privately administered injunctions to censor and chill free expression. On the other hand, the Government has responded through press releases and assured that the Rules in their current form do not violate the principle of freedom of expression or allow the government to regulate content.
This study has been conducted with the objective of determining whether the criteria, procedure and safeguards for administration of the takedowns as prescribed by the Rules lead to a chilling effect on online free expression. In the course of the study, takedown notices were sent to a sample comprising of 7 prominent intermediaries and their response to the notices was documented. Different policy factors were permuted in the takedown notices in order to understand at what points in the process of takedown, free expression is being chilled.
The results of the paper clearly demonstrate that the Rules indeed have a chilling effect on free expression. Specifically, the Rules create uncertainty in the criteria and procedure for administering the takedown thereby inducing the intermediaries to err on the side of caution and over-comply with takedown notices in order to limit their liability; and as a result suppress legitimate expressions. Additionally, the Rules do not establish sufficient safeguards to prevent misuse and abuse of the takedown process to suppress legitimate expressions.
Of the 7 intermediaries to which takedown notices were sent, 6 intermediaries over-complied with the notices, despite the apparent flaws in them. From the responses to the takedown notices, it can be reasonably presumed that not all intermediaries have sufficient legal competence or resources to deliberate on the legality of an expression. Even if such intermediary has sufficient legal competence, it has a tendency to prioritize the allocation of its legal resources according to the commercial importance of impugned expressions. Further, if such subjective determination is required to be done in a limited timeframe and in the absence of adequate facts and circumstances, the intermediary mechanically (without application of mind or proper judgement) complies with the takedown notice.
The results also demonstrate that the Rules are procedurally flawed as they ignore all elements of natural justice. The third party provider of information whose expression is censored is not informed about the takedown, let alone given an opportunity to be heard before or after the takedown. There is also no recourse to have the removed information put-back or restored. The intermediary is under no obligation to provide a reasoned decision for rejecting or accepting a takedown notice.
The Rules in their current form clearly tilt the takedown mechanism in favour of the complainant and adversely against the creator of expression.
The research highlights the need to: (i) increase the safeguards against misuse of the privately administered takedown regime; (ii) reduce the uncertainty in the criteria for administering the takedown; (iii) reduce the uncertainty in the procedure for administering the takedown; (iv) include various elements of natural justice in the procedure for administering the takedown; and (v) replace the requirement for subjective legal determination by intermediaries with an objective test.
Keywords: intermediary liability, chilling effects, freedom of expression, notice and takedown, indiaworking papers series
Date posted: April 11, 2012 ; Last revised: August 21, 2014
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