Our new digital rules must ensure online child safety

Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint


Rework India’s IT Act to keep children safe online without curbing their access to the internet

Over the last few years, we have witnessed a steady growth in internet access to children and the youth, which further accelerated during the covid lockdown as more and more children started spending time online for education, learning and entertainment. Resultantly, post the pandemic, online sexual abuse of children increased 400 times, by one count, with nearly 90% of these crimes involving the publication or transmission of content depicting children in sexually explicit acts. Effective regulation and timely prosecution of perpetrators are critical to advance child safety on the internet. To this end, ongoing efforts by the government to revamp India’s Information Technology Act, 2000, are timely and crucial. Examining the nuances of each regulatory area will be critical in protecting children from harm without undermining their access to the internet.

Why is safe harbour important for child safety?: The current IT Act accords safe harbour protection to online intermediaries whereby platforms are liable to take down user-generated content on receiving ‘actual knowledge’ of its illegality through a court or government order. Safe harbour ensures that users can benefit from an open, free and safe internet, and protects people from the perils of mass censorship by intermediaries.

Increasing the accountability of online intermediaries is important. However, overarching restrictions on civil rights and dilution of safe harbour impacts user safety. The experience from the US regime with respect to the impact of the SESTA-FOSTA legislations passed in 2018 is an apt example. These restricted the ambit of safe-harbour protection provided to intermediaries under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Five years after the enactment of SESTA-FOSTA, numerous reports surfaced suggesting that these laws had endangered the lives of sex workers, where gathering evidence to investigate and prosecute traffickers became a challenge.

Facing the risk of ruinous prosecution, FOSTA-SESTA led to more stringent terms of service for some platforms, while for others it led to over-reliance on automated filters. Both these mechanisms have caused unreasonable restrictions on free speech and undermined safety. Irrespective of the means adopted by the platforms, intermediaries erring on the side of censorship are likely to disproportionately restrict marginalized voices and cause greater safety threats for them.

Rather than adopting hard-touch punitive measures, the new IT Act must focus on expanding affirmative technology-based solutions to tackle child sexual abuse material (CSAM), such as use of keywords, hashes and PhotoDNA, and establish community hotlines for swift remedial measures. The Supreme Court of India also recommended these measures in the Prajwala case of 2018. Moreover, public-private partnerships to incentivize the growth of privacy-enabling technologies must be encouraged, and global best practices such as end-to-end encryption, which are critical for safety and privacy, should be enabled by India’s new legislation.

Greater responsibility sharing and capacity enhancement: The new law should focus on deploying streamlined grievance redressal processes that intermediaries must adopt to efficiently respond to online harm. Processes for grading grievances according to the degree of harm posed are important, as those related to CSAM proliferation should be addressed on an immediate basis. Tech companies must use cutting-edge technologies and build new ways to identify and take action against perpetrators. Intermediaries should also make their terms of service easily comprehensible for children and create easily accessible mechanisms for them to lodge complaints.

Moreover, taking inspiration from other jurisdictions, emphasis should be placed on enhancing the capacity of law enforcement agencies to effectuate efficient investigation and timely prosecution. The American Invest in Child Safety Act of 2021, which creates a mandatory fund of $5 billion and deploys 100 new Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in the US to respond to online sexual abuse, is an inspirational example.

Sensitization and collaboration: In addition to the efforts of intermediaries and the government, the significance of including children as equal participants in the fight against online child abuse cannot be emphasized enough. Many countries have already initiated efforts in this direction. For instance, the Australian government is instituting an Youth Advisory Council, which will provide the administration feedback on online safety issues and measures to counter cyber-harm. Such feedback and consultation mechanisms can be helpful in integrating vulnerable stakeholders in the processes of decision-making. Many countries are also complementing these efforts through their engagement of school systems to raise public awareness on the issue. It could be helpful to adapt such practices to Indian educational systems as well.

Given the magnitude of services and opportunities that the internet has to offer, there is immense potential for children to learn and grow in the digital world. However, this is only possible when the rapid proliferation of online harm is held in check. Collaborative efforts by the government, industry, civil society and child-safety experts are imperative. India’s new IT Act is an ideal focal point for all these efforts and collaborations for an internet that is wholly consistent with the rights of children.

Amee Yajnik & Shruti Shreya are, respectively, a member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha; and programme manager, The Dialogue

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