New Delhi: After the government issued guidelines on the controversial Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, it is expected to soon come out with similar guidelines to clarify the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, that have also been heavily criticised.

A senior official of the department of electronics and information technology said that even though the government is not looking at amending the overall Act as the legislative process for that would be time consuming, it is hoping to issue guidelines within a week.

The rules were notified in April 2011 with the aim of clearly defining the role of intermediaries—including telcos, Internet and web-hosting service providers and search engines—while hosting content on their networks and websites along with ensuring some level of due diligence by them.

However, this led to outrage among the Internet community as the rules mandated hosts or owners of the websites to take action against “objectionable content" within 36 hours of receiving a complaint. Experts argued that the rules could lead to censorship attempts with some intermediaries complying with illegitimate requests to remove content from websites in a bid to avoid litigation.

The government official said that there had been some confusion about what it meant to take action within 36 hours.

“While the intent was to ensure that intermediaries take cognizance of the request and initiate some proceeding on it, it has been misconstrued as removing content within 36 hours in some cases," this person said.

The official added that the government was looking at clarifying issues such as this. “We are currently studying the representations sent by different stakeholders on the rules."

Subho Ray, president, Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), said that the term “act" should be replaced by “acknowledge" to ensure that it is not wrongly interpreted as removing content within 36 hours.

“We have also requested the time period to be extended to 72 hours as 36 hours is sometimes too short a period if it falls during the weekend," he said.

While only some clauses address issues such as national interest, public order and security restrictions under which content can be removed, “the remainder of grounds includes private claims such as content which ‘belongs to another person’, or otherwise infringes proprietary rights, or is ‘defamatory’," said Bangalore-based think tank Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in its representation, of which Mint has a copy. Moreover, other terms, such as ‘grossly harmful’, ‘harassing’ and ‘disparaging’, are “terminologically indeterminate and purely subjective", the representation said. It also said that “the intermediary guidelines create a two-track system by which private censorship is legitimized online".

IAMAI’s recommendations include clearly defining who can qualify as the ‘affected person’ eligible to post a complaint on content, which has currently been left to the discretion and determination of the intermediary.

Ray’s representation also said the rules put the burden of interpretation and acting upon third-party content on the intermediary. “This, we believe is the function of the judiciary and not the intermediaries," it said.

Guidelines, while bringing some initial clarity, may not be enough, said an executive at a top technology firm who did not want to be identified. “To ensure long-term solutions to some of the issues highlighted, the Act needs to be amended eventually," he said.

Late last month, the government promised to issue guidelines to the states that complaints under the controversial Section 66A of the IT Act, which criminalizes “causing annoyance or inconvenience" online or electronically, can be registered only with the permission of an officer at or above the rank of deputy commissioner of police, and inspector general in metro cities. However, even in the case of Section 66A, it did not amend the terms in the Section that are said to be vague and subject to interpretation.

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