Role of Intermediaries in Countering Online Abuse: Still a Work In Progress, Part I

The TechLawForum@NALSAR is happy to bring you a detailed two-part post by Jyoti Panday of Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, on the role played by Intermediaries in countering abuse on the internet. Jyoti is a graduate of Queen Mary’s University, London. Her work focuses on the interaction between intermediaries, user rights, and and freedom of expression. 

The Internet can be a hostile space and protecting users from abuse without curtailing freedom of expression requires a balancing act on the part of online intermediaries. As platforms and services coalesce around user-generated content (UGC) and entrench themselves in the digital publishing universe, they are increasingly taking on the duties and responsibilities of protecting  rights including taking reasonable measures to restrict unlawful speech. Arguments around the role of intermediaries tackling unlawful content usually center around the issue of regulation—when is it feasible to regulate speech and how best should this regulation be enforced?

Recently, Twitter found itself at the periphery of such questions when an anonymous user of the platform, @LutyensInsider, began posting slanderous and sexually explicit comments about Swati Chaturvedi, a Delhi-based journalist. The online spat which began in February last year,  culminated into Swati filing an FIR against the anonymous user, last week. Within hours of the FIR, the anonymous user deleted the tweets and went silent. Predictably, Twitter users hailed this as a much needed deterrence to online harassment. Swati’s personal victory is worth celebrating, it is an encouragement for the many women bullied daily on the Internet, where harassment is rampant. However, while Swati might be well within her legal rights to counter slander, the rights and liabilities of private companies in such circumstances are often not as clear cut.

Should platforms like Twitter take on the mantle of deciding what speech is permissible or not? When and how should the limits on speech be drawn? Does this amount to private censorship?The answers are not easy and as the recent Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) judgment in the case of Delfi AS v. Estonia confirms, the role of UGC platforms in balancing the user rights, is an issue far from being settled. In its ruling, the  ECtHR reasoned that because of their role in facilitating expression, online platforms have a requirement “to take effective measures to limit the dissemination of hate speech and speech inciting violence was not ‘private censorship”.

This is problematic because the decision moves the regime away from a framework that grants immunity from liability, as long as platforms meet certain criteria and procedures. In other words the ruling establishes strict liability for intermediaries in relation to manifestly illegal content, even if they may have no knowledge. The ‘obligation’ placed on the intermediary does not grant them safe harbour and is not proportionate to the monitoring and blocking capacity thus necessitated. Consequently,  platforms might be incentivized to err on the side of caution and restrict comments or confine speech resulting in censorship. The ruling is especially worrying, as the standard of care placed on the intermediary does not recognize the different role played by intermediaries in detection and removal of unlawful content. Further, intermediary liability is its own legal regime and is at the same time, a subset of various legal issues that need an understanding of variation in scenarios, mediums and technology both globally and in India.

LAW AND SHORT OF IT                  

Earlier this year, in a leaked memo, the Twitter CEO Dick Costolo took personal responsibility for his platform’s chronic problem and failure to deal with harassment and abuse. In Swati’s case, Twitter did not intervene or take steps to address  harrassment. If it had to, Twitter (India) would be bound by the liability framework established under Section 79 and accompanying the Rules of the Information Technology Act. These legislations outline the obligations and conditions that intermediaries must fulfill to claim immunity from liability for third party content. Under the regime, upon receiving actual knowledge of unlawful information on their platform, the intermediary must comply with the notice and takedown (NTD) procedure for blocking and removal of content.

Private complainants could invoke the NTD procedure forcing intermediaries to act as adjudicators of an unlawful act—a role they are clearly ill-equipped to perform, especially when the content relates to political speech or alleged defamation or obscenity. The SC judgment in Shreya Singhal addressing this issue, read down the provision (Section 79 by holding that a takedown notice can only be effected if the complainant secures a court order to support her allegation. Further, it was held that the scope of restrictions under the mechanism is restricted to the specific categories identified under Article 19(2). Effectively, this means Twitter need not take down content in the absence of a court order.

CONTENT POLICY AS DUE DILIGENCE

Another provision, Rule 3(2) prescribes a content policy which, prior to the Shreya Singhal judgment was a criteria for administering takedown. This content policy includes an exhaustive list of types of restricted expressions, though worryingly, the terms included in it are  not clearly defined and go beyond the reasonable restrictions envisioned under Article 19(2). Terms such as “grossly harmful”, “objectionable”, “harassing”, “disparaging” and “hateful” are not defined anywhere in the Rules, are subjective and contestable as alternate interpretation and standard could be offered for the same term. Further, this content policy is not applicable to content created by the intermediary.

Prior to the SC verdict in Shreya Singhal, actual knowledge could have been interpreted to mean the intermediary is called upon its own judgement under sub-rule (4) to restrict impugned content in order to seek exemption from liability. While liability accrued from not complying with takedown requests under the content policy was clear, this is not the case anymore. By reading down of S. 79 (3) (b) the court has addressed the issue of intermediaries complying with places limits on the private censorship of intermediaries and the invisible censorship of opaque government takedown requests as they must and should adhere, to the boundaries set by Article 19(2). Following the SC judgment intermediaries do not have to administer takedowns without a court order thereby rendering this content policy redundant. As it stands, the content policy is an obligation that intermediaries must fulfill in order to be exempted from liability for UGC and this due diligence is limited to publishing rules and regulations, terms and conditions or user agreement informing users of the restrictions on content. The penalties for not publishing this content policy should be clarified.

Further, having been informed of what is permissible users are agreeing to comply with the policy outlined, by signing up to and using these platforms and services. The requirement of publishing content policy as due diligence is unnecessary given that mandating such ‘standard’ terms of use negates the difference between different types of intermediaries which accrue different kinds of liability. This also places an extraordinary power of censorship in the hands of the intermediary, which could easily stifle freedom of speech online. Such heavy handed regulation could make it impossible to publish critical views about anything without the risk of being summarily censored.

Finally, some clauses in the content policy are India specific such as rule 3(2)(i) which restricts any content that threatens “unity”, “integrity”, “defence”, “security”  “sovereignty” of India, “friendly relations with foreign states”, “public order” or “causes incitement”. Enforcing intermediaries to protect sovereignity of a nation by outlining the contours of speech is an impractical requirement for all intermediaries some of which may not even be based in India. Twitter may have complied with its duties by publishing the content policy, though the obligation does not seem to be an effective deterrence. Strong safe harbour provisions for intermediaries are a crucial element in the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression online. By absolving platforms of responsibility for UGC as long as they publish a content policy that is vague and subjective is the very reason why India’s IT Rules are in fact, in urgent need of improvement.

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