Call for Papers: Special Issue of the Indian Journal of Law and Technology (on Net Neutrality)

The Indian Journal of Law & Technology of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, in association with the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore is now inviting submissions for its special issue on Net neutrality. Given the contemporary relevance of the theme, this special issue seeks to explore the significance of Net neutrality. We do not intend to restrict ourselves to only legal perspectives, and we are also open to submissions addressing the issue of Net neutrality from the lenses of other disciplines.

About the Journal:

The Indian Journal of Law and Technology (IJLT) is a student-edited, peer-reviewed, completely open access law journal published annually by the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. The IJLT is the first and only law journal in India devoted exclusively to the study of the interface between law and technology.

The journal, as per its mandate, carries scholarship in the areas of intellectual property rights, internet governance, information communication technologies, access to medicines, privacy rights, digital freedoms, openness, telecommunications policy, media law and innovation etc. along with focusing on perspectives on contemporary issues affecting society around the world at the intersection of law, technology, industry and policy.

The previous issues of the IJLT have featured scholarly writings by renowned authors such as William Patry, Justice Michael Kirby, Yochai Benkler, Donald S. Chisum, Justice S. Muralidhar, Benjamin Edelman, Gavin Sutter, Raymond T. Nimmer, John Frow, Christoph Antons, Lawrence Liang and Shamnad Basheer. The Journal is also now indexed on research databases such as WestLaw, HeinOnline, the Legal Information Institute of India and Manupatra.

Scope of the Special Issue:

All submissions falling within the broad ambit of Net neutrality are welcomed. Some of the sub-themes may include:

  1. Effect of Net neutrality on Innovation and Competition
  2. Privacy Concerns Surrounding Net neutrality
  3. Comparison with Legal Framework in International Jurisdictions
  4. Legal Framework in India and the Way Forward

This list is merely illustrative and we will also accept submissions on other disciplinary aspects concerning Net neutrality.

Word Limit and Footnoting Style:

  1. Submissions may be made in any of the following categories:
  • Articles (5000-8000 words)
  • Short Articles (3000-5000 words)
  • Essays (2000-3000 words)

The above limits are exclusive of footnotes. Substantive footnoting is allowed.

  1. The body of the paper shall be in Times New Roman, font size 12, 1.5 line spacing. Footnotes should be in Times New Roman, size 10 single line spacing.
  2. Kindly follow Bluebook (19th edition) style of citation.

Format of Submission:

Please send in your submissions in MS/Open Word (*.doc OR *.docx OR *.odt) to ijltedit@gmail.com along with the following information:

  • Full Name of the Author
  • Institution
  • Position
  • Contact Details of the Author

The submissions must also contain an abstract not exceeding 200 words.

Deadline: All submissions must be made on or before 11:59 p.m., September 3rd, 2015. Please send original, unpublished papers to bothijlt.edit@gmail.com and ijltedit@nls.ac.in

Please feel free to browse our website (www.ijlt.in).

Write to us at ijlt.edit@gmail.com for more information. We look forward to receiving your submissions.

Contact:

Aradhya Sethia: +919986098649

Anumeha Karnatak: +918147592310

Regards,

The Editorial Board,

Indian Journal of Law and Technology, 2015-16.

Net Neutrality and Public Highways

(My thanks to Malavika Prasad for bringing this case to my attention)

With the recent release of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s [“TRAI”] “Consultation Paper” on the regulatory framework for over-the-top [“OTT”] services, net neutrality is up for sustained debate in India. Previously, I had written about how net neutrality, in the context of the internet, should be understood as a core free speech issue, and it might be helpful to consider the controllers of the “gateways” to the internet (or, in other words, the owners of the infrastructure of speech on the internet) as having public obligations of non-discriminatory access (even though they might be private parties). The idea of public obligations inhering upon private parties because of their control of public infrastructure, or their performing of a public function, has been upheld by the American Supreme Court in Marsh vs Alabama and by the Indian Supreme Court in the concurring judgment of Mohan J. in Unnikrishnan.

In the net neutrality debate this time, another bit of imagery has been doing the rounds: that of a public highway. It is permissible to charge a toll for the use of a highway, the rate of which might be proportional to how much one uses – so goes the analogy – but it is impermissible to charge differential toll rates based upon the make of the car you drive, or depending upon whether you’re going to work, or to vacation.

This is a particularly interesting analogy, because, as it turns out, the Indian Supreme Court has ruled upon precisely this point: that of non-discriminatory access to public highways. Saghir Ahmed vs State of UP, decided in 1954 by a five-judge bench, involved a constitutional challenge to the UP Road Transport Act, which allowed the State government to take exclusive control of running and operating road transport services within the state, if it believed such a step to be necessary in the public interest. Or, in other words, it allowed the State government to create a transport monopoly by executive fiat – which it actually did, for a part of the road network.

In deciding upon the validity of the State government notification, as well as the constitutionality of the Act, the Court noted:

“According to English law, which has been applied all along in India, a highway has its origin, apart from statute, in dedication, either express or implied, by the owner of land of a right of passage over it to the public and the acceptance of that right by the public . In the large majority of cases this dedication is presumed from long and uninterrupted user of a way by the public, and the presumption in such cases is so strong as to dispense with all enquiry into the actual intention of the owner of the soil and it is not even material to enquire who the owner was.

In response to the Attorney-General’s argument that the rights of commercial passage over a highway were determined by the Motor Vehicles Act, the Court observed:

“But the right of the public to use motor vehicles on the public road cannot, in any sense, be regarded as a right created by the Motor Vehicles Act. The right exists anterior to any legislation on this subject as an incident of public rights over a highway. The State only controls and regulates it for the purpose of ensuring safety, peace, health and good morals of the public. Once the position is accepted that a member of the public is entitled to ply motor vehicles on the public road as an incident of his right of passage over a highway, the question is really immaterial whether he plies a vehicle for pleasure or pastime or for the purpose of trade and business. The nature of the right in respect to the highway is not in any way affected thereby and we cannot agree with the learned AdvocateGeneral that the user of a public road for purposes of trade is an extraordinary or special use of the highway which can be acquired only under special sanction from the State.”

A few things ought to be noted:

(1) Although Saghir Ahmed was a case about State action, and consequently, implicated the petitioners’ Article 19(1)(g) and 14 rights, the Court’s logic here is based upon the nature of the utility (public highway) rather than the nature of the owner. In the first excerpted paragraph, the Court makes it clear that the question of ownership is immaterial, since whatever property rights the owner has, he is deemed to have intended to give up his right to the extent that passage requires.

(2) The power of the State to control and regulate the public utility must be for the purposes of ensuring safety, peace, health and morals.

(3) The nature of the use of the public utility (i.e., in this case, whether commercial or for pleasure) does not affect the scope of the right of use in any way.

(4) The right stems from long and uninterrupted prior use, presumably stretching back to the beginning of road networks, and consequently, being somehow part of the very nature, or essential characteristic, of a “road”.

Note the striking similarities with the net neutrality debate, with respect to each of the elements. There is, of course, a danger with pushing any analogy too far, but the vocabulary of the TRAI Consultation Paper itself conjures up an image of the internet “highway”. In paragraph 2, it states:

“The term over-the-top (OTT) refers to applications and services which are accessible over the internet and ride on operators’ networks offering internet access services e.g. social networks, search engines, amateur video aggregation sites etc.”

And, in para 3:

Carriage is separated from content in internet networks, enabling OTT content and application service providers to deal directly with end users.”

A full elaboration, of course, would need significant unpacking. What, precisely, is the public highway here? Is it the spectrum? And is the argument then that a spectrum auction by the original owner (i.e., the government) does not carry with it complete rights of ownership, but rather, attendant obligations that act as limits upon those rights. One of those obligations being to provide non-discriminatory access to a public utility, whose public character remains unchanged despite the ownership being in private hands. Of course, such an argument would also need to establish the analogy between roads and the internet, both in terms of their public character (perhaps not so difficult), and the establishment of a right of non-discriminatory access through a long period of uninterrupted usage (perhaps harder in the case of the internet).

 

Net Neutrality, Free Speech and the Indian Constitution – III: Conceptions of Free Speech and Democracy

(This post first appeared on the CIS blog, here)

In the modern State, effective exercise of free speech rights is increasingly dependent upon an infrastructure that includes newspapers, television and the internet. Access to a significant part of this infrastructure is determined by money. Consequently, if what we value about free speech is the ability to communicate one’s message to a non-trivial audience, financial resources influence both who can speak and, consequently, what is spoken. The nature of the public discourse – what information and what ideas circulate in the public sphere – is contingent upon a distribution of resources that is arguably unjust and certainly unequal.

There are two opposing theories about how we should understand the right to free speech in this context. Call the first one of these the libertarian conception of free speech. The libertarian conception takes as given the existing distribution of income and resources, and consequently, the unequal speaking power that that engenders. It prohibits any intervention designed to remedy the situation. The most famous summary of this vision was provided by the American Supreme Court, when it first struck down campaign finance regulations, in Buckley v. Valeo“the concept that government may restrict the speech of some [in] order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment.” This theory is part of the broader libertarian worldview, which would restrict government’s role in a polity to enforcing property and criminal law, and views any government-imposed restriction on what people can do within the existing structure of these laws as presumptively wrong.

 

We can tentatively label the second theory as the social-democratic theory of free speech. This theory focuses not so much on the individual speaker’s right not to be restricted in using their resources to speak as much as they want, but upon the collective interest in maintaining a public discourse that is open, inclusive and home to a multiplicity of diverse and antagonistic ideas and viewpoints. Often, in order to achieve this goal, governments regulate access to the infrastructure of speech so as to ensure that participation is not entirely skewed by inequality in resources. When this is done, it is often justified in the name of democracy: a functioning democracy, it is argued, requires a thriving public sphere that is not closed off to some or most persons.

Surprisingly, one of the most powerful judicial statements for this vision also comes from the United States. In Red Lion v. FCC, while upholding the “fairness doctrine”, which required broadcasting stations to cover “both sides” of a political issue, and provide a right of reply in case of personal attacks, the Supreme Court noted:

“[Free speech requires] preserv[ing] an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the Government itself or a private licensee… it is the right of the public to receive suitable access to social, political, esthetic, moral, and other ideas and experiences which is crucial here.”

What of India? In the early days of the Supreme Court, it adopted something akin to the libertarian theory of free speech. In Sakal Papers v. Union of India, for example, it struck down certain newspaper regulations that the government was defending on grounds of opening up the market and allowing smaller players to compete, holding that Article 19(1)(a) – in language similar to what Buckley v. Valeo would hold, more than fifteen years later – did not permit the government to infringe the free speech rights of some in order to allow others to speak. The Court continued with this approach in its next major newspaper regulation case,Bennett Coleman v. Union of India, but this time, it had to contend with a strong dissent from Justice Mathew. After noting that “it is no use having a right to express your idea, unless you have got a medium for expressing it”, Justice Mathew went on to hold:

What is, therefore, required is an interpretation of Article 19(1)(a) which focuses on the idea that restraining the hand of the government is quite useless in assuring free speech, if a restraint on access is effectively secured by private groups. A Constitutional prohibition against governmental restriction on the expression is effective only if the Constitution ensures an adequate opportunity for discussion… Any scheme of distribution of newsprint which would make the freedom of speech a reality by making it possible the dissemination of ideas as news with as many different facets and colours as possible would not violate the fundamental right of the freedom of speech of the petitioners. In other words, a scheme for distribution of a commodity like newsprint which will subserve the purpose of free flow of ideas to the market from as many different sources as possible would be a step to advance and enrich that freedom. If the scheme of distribution is calculated to prevent even an oligopoly ruling the market and thus check the tendency to monopoly in the market, that will not be open to any objection on the ground that the scheme involves a regulation of the press which would amount to an abridgment of the freedom of speech.

 

In Justice Mathew’s view, therefore, freedom of speech is not only the speaker’s right (the libertarian view), but a complex balancing act between the listeners’ right to be exposed to a wide range of material, as well as the collective, societal right to have an open and inclusive public discourse, which can only be achieved by preventing the monopolization of the instruments, infrastructure and access-points of speech.

Over the years, the Court has moved away from the majority opinions in Sakal Papers and Bennett Coleman, and steadily come around to Justice Mathew’s view. This is particularly evident from two cases in the 1990s: in Union of India v. The Motion Picture Association, the Court upheld various provisions of the Cinematograph Act that imposed certain forms of compelled speech on moviemakers while exhibiting their movies, on the ground that “to earmark a small portion of time of this entertainment medium for the purpose of showing scientific, educational or documentary films, or for showing news films has to be looked at in this context of promoting dissemination of ideas, information and knowledge to the masses so that there may be an informed debate and decision making on public issues. Clearly, the impugned provisions are designed to further free speech and expression and not to curtail it.

LIC v. Manubhai D. Shah is even more on point. In that case, the Court upheld a right of reply in an in-house magazine, “because fairness demanded that both view points were placed before the readers, however limited be their number, to enable them to draw their own conclusions and unreasonable because there was no logic or proper justification for refusing publication… the respondent’s fundamental right of speech and expression clearly entitled him to insist that his views on the subject should reach those who read the magazine so that they have a complete picture before them and not a one sided or distorted one…” This goes even further than Justice Mathew’s dissent in Bennett Coleman, and the opinion of the Court in Motion Picture Association, in holding that not merely is it permitted to structure the public sphere in an equal and inclusive manner, but that it is a requirementof Article 19(1)(a).

We can now bring the threads of the separate arguments in the three posts together. In the first post, we found that public law and constitutional obligations can be imposed upon private parties when they discharge public functions. In the second post, it was argued that the internet has replaced the park, the street and the public square as the quintessential forum for the circulation of speech. ISPs, in their role as gatekeepers, now play the role that government once did in controlling and keeping open these avenues of expression. Consequently, they can be subjected to public law free speech obligations. And lastly, we discussed how the constitutional conception of free speech in India, that the Court has gradually evolved over many years, is a social-democratic one, that requires the keeping open of a free and inclusive public sphere. And if there is one thing that fast-lanes over the internet threaten, it is certainly a free and inclusive (digital) public sphere. A combination of these arguments provides us with an arguable case for imposing obligations of net neutrality upon ISPs, even in the absence of a statutory or regulatory obligations, grounded within the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of speech and expression.

Net Neutrality, Free Speech and the Indian Constitution – II: Private parties, public obligations

(This post first appeared on the CIS website, here)

To sum up the previous post: under Article 12 of the Constitution, fundamental rights can be enforced only against the State, or State-like entities that are under the functional, financial and administrative control of the State. In the context of net neutrality, it is clear that privately-owned ISPs do not meet the exacting standards of Article 12. Nonetheless, we also found that the Indian Supreme Court has held private entities, which do not fall within the contours of Article 12, to an effectively similar standard of obligations under Part III as State organizations in certain cases. Most prominent among these is the case of education: private educational institutions have been required to adhere to standards of equal treatment which are identical in content to Article 14, even though their source lies elsewhere. If, therefore, we are to impose obligations of net neutrality upon private ISPs, a similar argument must be found.

I will suggest that the best hope is by invoking the free speech guarantee of Article 19(1)(a). To understand how an obligation of free speech might operate in this case, let us turn to the case of Marsh v. Alabama, an American Supreme Court case from 1946.

Marsh v. Alabama involved a “company town”. The “town” of Chickasaw was owned by a private company, the Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation. In its structure it resembled a regular township: it had building, streets, a sewage system, and a “business block”, where stores and business places had been rented out to merchants and other service providers. The residents of the “town” used the business block as their shopping center, to get to which they used the company-owned pavement and street. Highway traffic regularly came in through the town, and its facilities were used by wayfarers. As the Court noted:

In short the town and its shopping district are accessible to and freely used by the public in general and there is nothing to distinguish them from any other town and shopping center except the fact that the title to the property belongs to a private corporation.”

Marsh, who was a Jehovah’s Witness, arrived in Chickasaw with the intention of distributing religious literature on the streets. She was asked to leave the sidewalk, and on declining, she was arrested by the police, and charged under an anti-trespassing statute. She argued that if the statute was applied to her, it would violate her free speech and freedom of religion rights under the American First Amendment. The lower Courts rejected her argument, holding that since the street was owned by a private corporation, she had no constitutional free speech rights, and the situation was analogous to being invited into a person’s  private house. The Supreme Court, however, reversed the lower Courts, and found for Marsh.

Four (connected) strands of reasoning run through the Supreme Court’s (brief) opinion. First, it found that streets, sidewalks and public places have historically been critically important sites for dissemination and reception of news, information and opinions, whether it is through distribution of literature, street-corner oratory, or whatever else. Secondly, it found that private ownership did not carry with it a right to exclusive dominion. Rather, “the owners of privately held bridges, ferries, turnpikes and railroads may not operate them as freely as a farmer does his farm. Since these facilities are built and operated primarily to benefit the public and since their operation is essentially a public function, it is subject to state regulation.” Thirdly, it noted that a large number of Americans throughout the United States lived in company towns, and acted just as other American citizens did, in their duties as residents of a community. It would therefore be perverse to deny them rights enjoyed by those who lived in State-municipality run towns. And fourthly, on balance, it held that the private rights of property-owners was subordinate to the right of the people to “enjoy freedom of press and religion.”

No one factor, then, but a combination of factors underlie the Court’s decision to impose constitutional obligations upon a private party. It mattered that, historically, there have been a number of spaces traditionally dedicated to public speech: parks, squares and streets – whose public character remained unchanged despite the nature of ownership. It mattered that individuals had no feasible exit option – that is, no other place they could go to in order to exercise their free speech rights. And it mattered that free speech occupied a significant enough place in the Constitutional scheme so as to override the exclusionary rights that normally tend to go with private property.

The case of the privately-owned street in the privately-owned town presents a striking analogy when we start thinking seriously about net neutrality. First of all, in the digital age, the traditional sites of public discourse – parks, town squares, streets – have been replaced by their digital equivalents. The lonely orator standing on the soap-box in the street corner now tweets his opinions and instagrams his photographs. The street-pamphleteer of yesteryear now updates his Facebook status to reflect his political opinions. Specialty and general-interest blogs constitute a multiplicity of town-squares where a speaker makes his point, and his hearers gather in the comments section to discuss and debate the issue. While these examples may seem frivolous at first blush, the basic point is a serious one: the role of opinion formation and transmission that once served by open, publicly accessible physical infrastructure, held – in a manner of speaking – in public trust by the government, is now served in the digital world, under the control of private gatekeepers. To that extent, it is a public function, undertaken in public interest, as the Court held in Marsh v. Alabama.

The absence of an exit option is equally important. The internet has become not only space of exchanging information, but it has become a primary – non-replaceable source – of the same. Like the citizens of Chickasaw lacked a feasible alternative space to exercise their public free speech rights (and we operate on the assumption that it would be unreasonably expensive and disruptive for them to move to a different town), there is now no feasible alternative space to the internet, as it exists today, where the main online spaces are owned by private parties, and access to those spaces is determined by gatekeepers – which are the ISPs.

The analogy is not perfect, of course, but there is a case to be made that in acting as the gatekeepers of the internet, privately-owned ISPs are in a position quite similar to the corporate owners of they public streets Company Town.

In the last post, we saw how it is possible – constitutionally – to impose public obligations upon private parties, although the Court has never made its jurisprudential foundation clear. Here, then, is a thought: public obligations ought to be imposed when the private entity is providing a public function and/or when the private entity is in effectively exclusive control of a public good. There is an argument that ISPs satisfy both conditions. Of course, we need to examine in detail how precisely the rights of free expression are implicated in the ISP context. That is the subject for the next post.

Net Neutrality, Free Speech and the Indian Constitution – I

(This piece first appeared on the CIS website, here)

Net neutrality is rapidly becoming one of the most important issues facing internet governance and internet freedom today, and it is quite likely that it will soon raise issues of law and legal policy in India. In this post (and the next), I will discuss net neutrality, free speech and the Indian Constitution.

I will not here go into the debates surrounding the multiple meanings of the concept of “net neutrality” but take, for the purposes of this post, the following definition:

The idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally is known as network neutrality. In other words, no matter who uploads or downloads data, or what kind of data is involved, networks should treat all of those packets in the same manner.

In other words, put simply, net neutrality requires the extant gatekeepers of the internet – such as, for instance, broadband companies – to accord a form of equal and non-discriminatory treatment to all those who want to access the internet. Examples of possible discrimination – as the quote above illustrates – include, for instance, blocking content or providing differential internet speed (perhaps on the basis of a tiered system of payment for access).

Net neutrality has its proponents and opponents, and I do not have space here to address that dispute. This post – and the next – are premised on the assumption that net neutrality is both an important and a desirable goal (this brief article in the Times of India provides a decent, basic primer on the stakes involved).

An example of net neutrality in practice is the American Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order of 2010, which was the subject of litigation in the recently concluded Verizon v. FCCThe Open Internet order imposed obligations of transparency, no blocking, and no unreasonable discrimination, upon internet service providers. The second and third requirements were vacated by a United States Court of Appeals. The rationale for the Court’s decision was that ISPs could not be equated, in law, to “common carriers”. A common carrier is an entity that offers to transport persons and/or goods in exchange for a fee (for example, shipping companies, or bus companies). A common carrier is licensed to be one, and often, one of the conditions for license is an obligation not to discriminate. That is, the common carrier cannot refuse to carry an individual who is willing and able to pay the requisite fees, in the absence of a compelling reason (for example, if the individual wishes the carrier to transport contraband). Proponents of net neutrality have long called for treating ISPs as common carriers, a proposition – as observed above – was rejected by the Court.

With this background, let us turn to India. In India, internet service providers are both state-owned (BSNL and MTNL), and privately-owned (Airtel, Spectranet, Reliance, Sify etc). Unlike many other countries, however, India has no network-neutrality laws. As this informative article observes:

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in its guidelines for issuing licences for providing Unified Access Service, promotes the principle of non-discrimination but does not enforce it… the Information Technology Act does not provide regulatory provisions relating to Internet access, and does not expressly prohibit an ISP from controlling the Internet to suit their business interests.”

In the absence of either legislation or regulation, there are two options. One, of course, is to invoke the rule of common carriers as a common law rule in court, should an ISP violate the principles of net neutrality. In this post (and the next), however, I would like to analyze net neutrality within a constitutional framework – in particular, within the framework of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression.

In order to do so, two questions become important, and I shall address them in turn. First, given that most of the ISPs are privately owned, how does the Constitution even come into the picture? Our fundamental rights are enforceable vertically, that is, between individuals and the State, and not horizontally – that is, between two individuals, or two private parties. Where the Constitution intends to depart from this principle (for instance, Article 15(2)), it specifically and expressly states so. As far as Article 19 and the fundamental freedoms are concerned, however, it is clear that they do not admit of horizontal application.

Yet what, precisely, are we to understand by the term “State”? Consider Article 12: 

“In this part, unless the context otherwise requires, the State includes the Government and Parliament of India and the Government and the Legislature of each of the States and all local or other authorities within the territory of India or under the control of the Government of India.”

The key question is what, precisely, falls within the meaning of “other authorities”. The paradigmatic example – and this is something Ambedkar had in mind, as is evidenced by the Constituent Assembly Debates – is the statutory corporation – i.e., a company established under a statute. There are, however, more difficult cases, for instance, public-private partnerships of varying types. For the last fifty years, the Supreme Court has struggled with the issue of defining “other authorities” for the purposes of Part III of the Constitution, with the pendulum swinging wildly at times. In the case of Pradeep Kumar Biswas v. Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, a 2002 judgment by a Constitution bench, the Court settled upon the following definition:

“The question in each case would be whether in the light of the cumulative facts as established, the body is financially, functionally and administratively dominated by or under the control of the Government. Such control must be particular to the body in question and must be pervasive. If this is found then the body is a State within Article 12. On the other hand, when the control is merely regulatory whether under statute or otherwise, it would not serve to make the body a State.”

Very obviously, this dooms the ISP argument. There is no way to argue that ISPs are under the pervasive financial, functional and administrative domination or control of the State. If we step back for a moment, though, the Pradeep Kumar Biswas test seems to be radically under-inclusive. Consider the following hypothetical: tomorrow, the government decides to privatize the nation’s water supply to private company X. Company X is the sole distributor of water in the country. On gaining control, it decides to cut off the water supply to all households populated by members of a certain religion. There seems something deeply wrong in the argument that there is no remedy under discrimination law against the conduct of the company.

The argument could take two forms. One could argue that there is a certain minimum baseline of State functions (ensuring reasonable access to public utilities, overall maintenance of communications, defence and so on). The baseline may vary depending on your personal political philosophy (education? Health? Infrastructure?), but within the baseline, as established, if a private entity performs a State function, it is assimilated to the State. One could also argue, however, that even if Part III isn’tdirectly applicable, certain functions are of a public nature, and attract public law obligations that are identical in content to fundamental rights obligations under Part III, although their source is not Part III.

To unpack this idea, consider Justice Mohan’s concurring opinion in Unnikrishnan v. State of Andhra Pradesh, a case that involved the constitutionality of high capitation fees charged by private educational institutions. One of the arguments raised against the educational institutions turned upon the applicability of Article 14’s guarantee of equality. The bench avoided the issue of whether Article 14 directly applied to private educational institutions by framing the issue as a question of the constitutionality of the legislation that regulated capitation fees. Justice Mohan, however, observed:

What is the nature of functions discharged by these institutions? They discharge a public duty. If a student desires to acquire a degree, for example, in medicine, he will have to route through a medical college. These medical colleges are the instruments to attain the qualification. If, therefore, what is discharged by the educational institution, is a public duty that requires… [it to] act fairly. In such a case, it will be subject to Article 14.

In light of Pradeep Kumar Biswas, it is obviously difficult to hold the direct application of the Constitution to private entities. We can take Justice Mohan, however, to be making a slightly different point: performing what are quintessentially public duties attract certain obligations that circumscribe the otherwise free action of private entities. The nature of the obligation itself depends upon the nature of the public act. Education, it would seem, is an activity that is characterized by open and non-discriminatory access. Consequently, even private educational institutions are required to abide by the norms of fairness articulated by Article 14, even though they may not, as a matter of constitutional law, be held in violation of the Article 14 that is found in the constitutional text. Again, the content of the obligation is the same, but its source (the constitutional text, as opposed to norms of public law) is different.

We have therefore established that in certain cases, it is possible to subject private entities performing public functions to constitutional norms without bringing them under Article 12’s definition of the State, and without the need for an enacted statute, or a set of regulations. In the next post, we shall explore in greater detail what this means, and how it might be relevant to ISPs and net neutrality.

Guest Post: An Executive Court and a Judicial Committee: The Supreme Court’s Decisions on the Internet Restrictions in Kashmir

[This is a guest post by Chintan Chandrachud, on the Supreme Court’s decision in the 4G Internet case. Mihir’s analysis of the judgment on this blog can be found here.]


On 11 May, the Supreme Court issued its decision in a case challenging the restriction on mobile internet speed in Jammu and Kashmir. The Court neither decided whether the restriction was unconstitutional nor issued a remedy. Instead, it referred the matter to a three member special committee. The Supreme Court’s decision on 11 May was a sequel to its decision of 10 January 2020. At 149 pages collectively, the Court’s decisions are relatively brief by its standards. However, they are far more revealing about the role of the Court than many other decisions of greater length and complexity.

On 4 August 2019, mobile phone networks, internet connectivity and landlines were disabled in large parts of Jammu and Kashmir, in anticipation of the constitutional changes that would follow. (As is well known, these “virtual” restrictions – frequently described as the “communications lockdown” – were also accompanied by restrictions on physical movement, with several political leaders being placed under house arrest.) The communications lockdown was imposed under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules (“Suspension Rules”), which enable the central or state government to suspend telecom services when there is a public emergency or a risk to public safety. The Suspension Rules included a mechanism for solitary review (rather than periodic review) of suspension orders. A committee of three bureaucrats would meet once, within five days of the relevant suspension order, to determine if it was appropriate.

In its decision of 10 January, the Court addressed the question of whether the suspension orders that had been passed since 4 August 2019 – which were the pieces of the puzzle constituting the communications lockdown – were unconstitutional. In arriving at its decision, the Court prescribed a series of important principles. Even though the Suspension Rules did not specifically require their publication, the Court held that suspension orders should be published going forward. It replaced the solitary review mechanism with a periodic review mechanism – in which the review committee would be required to meet every seven days to assess the appropriateness of suspension orders. The Court also concluded that blanket suspension orders (either in terms of the duration of time for which they applied or in terms of their geographic application) would not be constitutionally permissible. However, the Supreme Court failed to decide the most important issue – whether the suspension orders were constitutionally invalid and should be set aside. This was nothing short of an abdication of responsibility. It is no coincidence that the right that guarantees direct access to the Supreme Court when fundamental rights are violated refers to “remedies for enforcement of rights”. The Court may have recognised the rights at stake, but failed to enforce them and award a remedy.

Following the Court’s decision, a review committee of three state-level bureaucrats met periodically to consider fresh suspension orders that gradually narrowed the scope of the lockdown. Fixed-line internet connectivity was restored (first for essential services and hospitals, later for software companies, and ultimately more widely). Access to social media websites was gradually reinstated. However, elements of the thirteen suspension orders passed between the Supreme Court’s decisions of January and May seemed vulnerable to constitutional scrutiny. For example, between 14 January and 4 March, the suspension orders imposed a “white-listing” regime, under which only specifically white-listed websites could be accessed through the internet. This resulted in some arbitrary inclusions and exclusions, and an abandonment of the basic principles of net neutrality. In addition, mobile internet has continued to remain restricted to 2G speeds, well below the 4G speeds that would otherwise be available.

The restriction on speed of mobile internet was addressed in the Supreme Court’s judgment of 11 May. It is easy to typecast this as a narrow restriction (slow internet versus fast internet). Examined more closely, however, this is a question of access rather than speed. Imagine using applications designed for 2020 on a mobile internet connection that is in healthy competition with dial-up internet of the 1990s. The constitutional challenge was framed with a focus on the impact of the restriction. It was argued that the restriction hindered doctors and the general public from accessing information on COVID-19, and students from accessing educational material and literature when classes in physical classrooms were not taking place. The government argued that the restriction was in the interests of national security, and was directed towards reducing misuse of the internet by terrorists and militants.

In what was virtually an action replay of its decision in January, the Supreme Court refused to determine the constitutional validity of the restriction. Even if the decision of 10 January were to be justified on the basis that the Court established a new periodic review mechanism which would consider the appropriateness of suspension orders going forward, that rationale was now no longer available. The restriction that was challenged was a product of the new review mechanism, and the Court was tasked with determining if it was unconstitutional. Instead of doing so, the Court set up yet another review committee – this time consisting of a combination of national and state level bureaucrats – to “examine the contentions” of the parties and determine whether the restriction is appropriate. To be sure, the Court did not ask the committee to report back to it with its analysis. The petitions have been disposed of, and it is the committee that will be deciding the propriety of the restriction. To state the obvious, the Court has delegated its sacrosanct obligation of determining the constitutionality of executive action to the executive.

Equally disconcerting as the Supreme Court’s delegation of authority, however, is its assumption of responsibility. The Court opens its judgments of 10 January and 11 May with the surprising observation that it is the Court’s role to strike a “balance” between “liberty and security”. It is easy to understand why any Court would veer towards security over liberty when the question is framed in this way. However, this framing is at odds with the Court’s role as an independent decision-maker. Neither proportionality nor reasonableness review requires the Court to be saddled with the responsibility of “striking a balance” between liberty and security. That is plainly the job of a democratically elected government. The Court’s role is simply to determine, applying the principles articulated in its 10 January decision, whether the balance that has already been struck by the government is constitutionally permissible.

If the Supreme Court is once again called upon to determine the constitutionality of the restrictions on communication, it should not only take back the adjudicative mantle, but also hand over the executive one.

Content Neutrality and Free Speech as a Social Good

While discussing the Court’s newspaper regulation cases in the previous few posts, we noticed that in Sakal Papers and in Bennett Coleman, the Court accepts the unregulated marketplace as an a priori background condition within which the right to freedom of speech operates, and not something that may itself be subject to change or modification in the interests of free speech. In a separate line of cases, however, this view has been emphatically rejected. Unsurprisingly, these cases have to do with the second and third conceptions of free speech latent in Justice Mathew’s dissenting opinion in Bennett Coleman, that we discussed in the last post: free speech as a social good, promoting a rich, substantive conception of democracy; and free speech as the right of the hearers/listeners (the community) to have access to a wide range of ideas and opinions. It is easy to see why this is at odds with the unregulated-marketplace viewpoint: an unregulated marketplace possesses no safeguards against monopoly (indeed, if you were a Marxist, you would argue that any unregulated marketplace necessarily tends towards a monopoly), and a monopoly over ideas is something both the substantive-democracy justification as well as the community-right justification simply cannot abide. The goal of both these justifications is an end-state in which there is a certain variety of ideas accessible in the public domain; and the market is an instrument (as opposed to being an end in itself) that is used to achieve that end-state, with whatever influence or interference necessary to bring the end-state about.

Union of India v. The Motion Picture Association (1999) is a classic case on point. In that case, various provisions of the Cinematograph Act permitted the Government to issue directions to… [cinema] licensees that scientific films, films intended for educational purposes, films dealing with news and current events, documentary films or indigenous films have to be exhibited by the licensee along with the other films which the licensee is exhibiting.” In other words, this was a case of content-specific compulsory speech. The Court rejected the 19(1)(a) challenge in the following words, which deserve to be quoted in full:

“…. the best way by which ideas can reach this large body of uneducated people is through the entertainment channel which is watched by all – literate and illiterate alike. To earmark a small portion of time of this entertainment medium for the purpose of showing scientific, educational or documentary films, or for showing news films has to be looked at in this context of promoting dissemination of ideas, information and knowledge to the masses so that there may be an informed debate and decision making on public issues. Clearly, the impugned provisions are designed to further free speech and expression and not to curtail it. None of these statutory provisions require the exhibitor to show a propaganda film or a film conveying views which he objects to. In fact, the exhibitors have not raised any objection to the contents of the films which they are required to show. They, however, contend that one of the important requirements for upholding such compulsory speech in the United States is that such speech should be content-neutral. While in the present case, the contents of the compulsory films are specified in the legislation concerned. In the context of Article 19(1) what we have to examine is whether the categories of films so required to be carried promote dissemination of information and education or whether they are meant to be propaganda or false or biased information. The statute quite clearly specifies the kinds of films which promote dissemination of knowledge and information. (Paragraph 18)

Two things stand out in this paragraph. First, the Court disclaims the language of community rights, using instead the vocabulary of free speech as a social good: the goal is “informed debate… on public issues”. That is why the public ought to have access to ideas, information and knowledge – not because they have a right to it. Is the distinction important? Yes it is, for precisely the same reason that, in our very first post on Sakal Papers, we highlighted with respect to the instrumental/intrinsic justifications for free speech: on this reasoning, the Court ends up creating hierarchies of free speech, singling out for special treatment those instances that promote the said “informed debate… on public issues.” This, as we have seen before, in practice, amounts to nothing more than a line in the sand, and it is extremely difficult to apply it in a principled and consistent fashion.

Secondly – and more interestingly – the Court rejects the cardinal principle of American free speech jurisprudence: content-neutrality. Indeed, the Court could not possibly accept it, because to advocate a diversity of views is by definition to endorse a certain kind of content-regulation. What the Court does subscribe to – as is eveident from the last part of the quoted paragraph – is a softer principle that – for want of a better word – we can tentatively label “ideological neutrality”. Now, there are two objections to this holding of the Court’s. First, it is an open question whether “ideological neutrality” is even a coherent idea. The last eighty years of continental philosophy cast serious doubt upon that proposition. We know from Gramsci, for instance (to take just one example) that what we treat as “common sense”, something given and “natural”, is actually shot through with ideology and presuppositions that aren’t actually natural or necessary. Unlike the concept of content-neutrality, therefore, the Court’s hybrid principle might not have a strong philosophical foundation. And secondly, even if ideological neutrality does exist, why must it be enforced if we subscribe to a marketplace with access to a true range of diverse ideas? Suppose tomorrow all newspapers and television channels take an editorial decision to support the FDI-in-Retail-Policy, effectively excluding the contrary viewpoint from the public sphere. If the government now takes active measures to introduce the other side – admittedly, derivative and emblematic of a certain political ideology – into the so-called market, then is it inconsistent with the idea of democracy that the Court expounded upon? Whatever the independent principled justification and pragmatic wisdom of such a move, I suggest that it is entirely in keeping with the vision of democracy as playing host to a truly diverse range of viewpoints that the Court itself endorses.

LIC v. Manubhai D. Shah (1993), which was actually decided a few years earlier, puts the issue in clearer perspective. In that case, the Respondent published a study-paper pointing out various lapses in LIC’s insurance policy; an LIC official published a counter in The Hindu, and the Respondent published a rejoinder to the counter in the same newspaper. The LIC official’s counter was also published in LIC’s in-house magazine, but the Respondent’s request that his rejoinder be published there was rejected. It was this decision that he challenged. The Court upheld the challenging, observin that:

Such an attitude on the part of the LIC can be described as both unfair and unreasonable; unfair because fairness demanded that both view points were placed before the readers, however limited be their number, to enable them to draw their own conclusions and unreasonable because there was no logic or proper justification for refusing publication… the respondent’s fundamental right of speech and expression clearly entitled him to insist that his views on the subject should reach those who read the magazine so that they have a complete picture before them and not a one sided or distorted one…” (paragraph 12)

It is of course, not very clear how it is my right that you should have a balanced picture of anything. It is safe to surmise on a reading of the case as a whole, however, that the Court was referring – in the vein of the Motion Picture Case – to a community goal of providing a balanced account of any contentious issue to the public. Yet what is of importance here is to note, again, how ideological neutrality is an extremely difficult concept to pin down. Here, the Court’s argument is that the rejoinder must be published to reach an overall balance of opinion. But if that is the case, then what differentiates our earlier hypothetical of promoting ideologically-loaded content which has otherwise been excluded – for whatever reason – from the public sphere?

In any event, for obvious reasons, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Manubhai D. Shah and in Motion Pictures Association are in tension with its decisions in Sakal Papers and in Bennett Coleman, because the idea of free speech as a social good and as a community right must necessarily conflict with an individual-rights view. The jurisprudence of the Supreme Court on this point is conflicted; we must therefore look beyond it to see which set of principles corresponds to the philosophy of our Constitution as a whole.

Sedition as Anti-Democratic Speech: The Paradox of Liberal Neutrality?

Let us briefly sum up the conclusions of our last post on sedition:

In Kedar Nath Singh, Section 124A was challenged as being violative of Art. 19(1)(a). Naturally, the Court could not have found that the test for sedition was broader than what Article 19(2) permitted. Nonetheless, there were three ways in which the Court could have effectively hamstrung any Article 19(2) barriers, and allowed the executive a free rein in the application of the sedition law:

(a) The Court could have held that seditious speech does not come within the protection of Article 19(1)(a) at all (as it did for commercial speech in Hamdard Dawakhana and – as we shall see subsequently – it has done in a case involving the flying of the Indian flag).

(b) The Court could have created a legal fiction by holding that inciting disaffection, or feelings of enmity, or of disloyalty (as per S. 124A) is deemed to proximately disrupt public order

(c) The Court could have weakened the public order test itself, holding that feelings of disaffection could conceivably affect public order by promoting disobedience towards the government, and that that is enough, considering the wide import of the phrase “in the interests of public order” (an argument used too many times to count, on behalf of the State).

As we have seen, the Court came dangerously close to both (b) and (c), but ultimately affirmed the existing interpretation of Article 19(2), and by implication, affirmed the strong protection of free speech. The law on sedition, therefore, is clear and unambiguous. Legally, there is no doubt that instances such as those of Aseem Trivedi, the 8000 sedition cases filed against the protesters at Koodankulam, Arundhati Roy’s arrest, and countless others are blatant abuses of law. It is submitted that a legislation that serves no discernible purpose (as argued in the previous post), and is regularly used as a tool for political persecution, has no business being on the statute books. It must go.

Let us now, however, examine another issue that arose out of the Kedar Nath Singh case, but one that has received comparatively little attention. In Paragraph 36, the Court stated:

“Now, the expression “the Government established by law” has to be distinguished from the persons for the time being engaged in carrying on the administration. “Government established by law” is the visible symbol of the State. The very existence of the State will be in jeopardy if the Government established by law is subverted.”

This is framed somewhat curiously. Presumably, my inciting disaffection against the ruling UPA Government does not amount to sedition, because the UPA only consists of people “for the time being engaged in carrying on the administration.” Who – or what – then, do I have to incite disaffection against in order to qualify as seditious? Is it the government as an abstraction, as a concept? Perhaps my target must be the institution of government, as governance is practiced in India – in other words, (liberal?) democracy – that is, liberal democracy embodied by the elements of our Constitution’s basic structure.

We may now describe the alleged paradox at the heart of liberal political theory. As we have discussed in many of the previous posts, political liberalism’s central tenet is neutrality – neutrality between competing conceptions of the good, between opposite ideas of what Rawls calls “comprehensive theories” – that is theories about what is good, true and beautiful, and how one ought to live one’s life. Now, if that was true, then political liberalism itself is merely one comprehensive theory, and cannot take either epistemic or moral priority over the others. And that, in turn, would imply that if I use liberal institutions to assume political power, and then systematically dismantle those very institutions, then liberalism itself gives no argument to stop me – for that would amount to privileging one conception of the good (liberalism itself) over others (say, fascism).

States that claim to be politically liberal have struggled with this issue for years. In the United States, Justice Holmes’ “clear and present danger” test, enunciated in Schenck v. United States, was notoriously used by the Supreme Court during the McCarthy era, to suppress communist-leaning entities (see, in particular, Dennis v. United States), before being narrowed to an “incitement to imminent lawless action” test by Justice Douglas in Brandenburg v. Ohio. It is interesting to note that Dennis, in particular, involved the advocacy of a philosophy that is explicitly hostile to political liberalism, but because of American free speech philosophy’s commitment to content neutrality, the ground of the decision, ultimately, was something akin to preserving public order.

Now compare this with a decision of the European Court of Human Rights (Refah Partisi v. Turkeyand the Israeli Supreme Court (Neiman v. Election Committee), and Article 21.2 of the German Basic Law. Refah Partisi was a Turkish political party that claimed, as part of its manifesto, its commitment to the abolition of secularism, the imposition of sharia law and the creation of a theocracy in Turkey. The Turkish Constitutional Court dissolved the party. The case went up in appeal to the ECHR, which held that if a political party wishes to change the legal and constitutional structure of the State, “the change proposed must itself be compatible with fundamental democratic principles.” Sharia law, it held, was not so compatible, and it also held that political parties could be forestalled from such action by their dissolution before they came to power, as long as the need was perceived to be urgent. In Neiman, the Israeli Supreme Court, apparently influenced by John Rawls’ insistence on the need to “tolerate the intolerant”, set a higher bar of “negating the existence of the State of Israel as one of its goals” as sufficient grounds for dissolving a political party. How a political party, using political mechanisms to assume political power can simultaneously negate the very existence of the State that it seeks to govern is, however, somewhat unclear. And lastly, consider Article 21.2 of the German Basic Law, stating that parties who “seek to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order” are unconstitutional.

Are the ECHR and Israeli decisions, and German Constitutional provision, then, philosophically justified? Laurence Tribe is clear that they are not, arguing that:

“It should be clear that no satisfactory theory of free speech can presuppose or guarantee the permanent existence of any particular social system. For example, a free speech theory must permit evolution from a society built on the ideals of liberal individualism to a society aspiring to more communitarian visions – just as it must permit evolution from communitarianism to individualism.”

Rawls and Popper, on the other hand, argue strongly that in order for a liberal society to survive, it must set limits on what it is willing to tolerate. But this leads precisely to the paradox that we outlined above – and the mere statement that liberalism will be destroyed by untrammeled toleration of the intolerant, while emotively powerful, for the reasons described above, remains philosophically unsatisfactory.

Joseph Raz does indeed take a stab at a philosophical justification. Eschewing neutrality as the defining feature of liberalism, he focuses instead on autonomy – that is, the range of worthwhile choices open to an individual to make towards the shaping of his life. For Raz, coercion (read, banning of free speech) amounts to a loss of autonomy, since it restricts a person’s range of choices; hence, it can only be justified on the grounds of a corresponding autonomy gain. A Razian would thus argue that if a thriving democracy provides maximal autonomy for all its citizens, than the autonomy loss in restricting speech for the purpose of preserving the democratic order is justified. Of course, one may have philosophical disagreements with Raz’s conception of autonomy, with his distinct flavour of autonomy-utilitarianism, but that is a debate for another day.

These issues have not yet – to my knowledge – been tested on the touchstone of the Indian Constitution. Perhaps, one day, for instance, if a party with the agenda of turning India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra‘ comes to power, they will become particularly pertinent. For now, these arguments form an important piece of the puzzle in determining whether the Indian Constitution is committed to political liberalism – and whether it should be.

Intermediary Guidelines and the Digital Public Sphere: Balancing the Scales

The last two posts examined prominent new features of the Intermediary Guidelines 2021, automated filtering (here), and tracing first originators (here). However, the undoubted goal of the Guidelines, demonstrated by the express regulation of “Significant Social Media Intermediaries”, is to hold large social media companies accountable for their role in structuring online speech. This post examines the scheme of the Guidelines to examine how effectively they regulate social media.

I begin by examining the liability for communicating unlawful speech to understand why intermediaries are granted immunity for hosting unlawful content. Next, I explain the power imbalance between tech companies and internet users. Finally, I analyze the Intermediary Guidelines’ attempt to remedy this power imbalance by providing various reliefs to users vis-a-vis online platforms.

Speech models and their inadequacy for online platforms

In determining liability for communicative acts, the law distinguishes between publishers and distributors. Publishers are liable for the content they publish, while distributors are typically not liable for content they distribute because they are not deemed to know if they are distributing unlawful content. For example, a newspaper may be liable for an article it solicited/sourced, compiled and edited but a newsstand selling the newspaper will not be held liable because it could not be expected to know the contents of every article in every newspaper it sells. (Volumes could be written on the myriad of nuances within these concepts but acknowledging the distinction will suffice for now.)   

However, this publisher-distributor distinction breaks down in the case of online platforms. They are not neutral distributors as they actively moderate and rank content to determine what users see. But they are also not quite publishers, as they are not responsible for creating the content on their platforms. Unlike a newspaper, whose employees write the articles, on platforms, it is internet users not a platform’s employees that create content. Thus, the publisher-distributor distinction serves legislators poorly when deciding how to regulate online platforms.

Further, legislators worry that if online intermediaries are held liable for unlawful content on their platforms (like a publisher), intermediaries would either: (1) adapt their behaviour to fall under the distributor model and exercise no control over their platforms, leading to the internet being filled with the worst kinds of content; or (2) follow the publisher route and takedown any content that was remotely unlawful, leading to vast horizontal censorship by online intermediaries and defeating the purpose of the decentralised, user driven internet. Enter intermediary immunity.

Intermediary immunity and voluntary moderation

The approach taken by several legislatures, including India’s, has been to provide online intermediaries legal immunity for unlawful content on their platforms even though they filter and curate content. This approach ensures two very important goals: (1) online intermediaries can voluntarily filter content without worrying about a publisher’s liability, thus resulting in less abusive speech online for users; and (2) intermediaries have enough breathing space to not take down user content en masse, resulting in the protection of users’ free speech against horizontal censorship. Rule 3(1)(d) (third proviso) of the Intermediary Guidelines 2021 expressly notes that intermediaries will not lose their status as neutral entities even thoughthey may voluntarily remove a wide range of presumptively illegal content from their platforms.

But this is where things start to get tricky. The definition of ‘presumptively illegal speech’ set out in Rule 3(1)(b) of the Intermediary Guidelines is so broad that platforms have immense discretion in what content to take down within the scope of the rule itself. Under Rule 3(1)(b) intermediaries may takedown content that (inter alia):

(ii) is defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, invasive of another‘s privacy, including bodily privacy, insulting or harassing on the basis of gender, libellous, racially or ethnically objectionable, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise inconsistent with or contrary to the laws in force […]

(viii) threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order, or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence or is insulting other nation […]

(x) is patently false and untrue, and is written or published in any form, with the intent to mislead or harass a person, entity or agency for financial gain or to cause any injury to any person

These are obviously very broad terms and intermediaries may reasonably disagree with their users over whether content falls within these categories. This creates a conflict between the two goals of intermediary immunity. On the one hand immunity is essential to incentivising platforms to freely take down the worst forms of content without risk of liability, but the wide discretion Rule 3(1)(b) gives them results in users eventually complaining of horizontal censorship (as has already happened on both sides of the political spectrum).

(Note: in Shreya Singhal the Supreme Court ruled that the contents of Rule 3(1)(b) should be limited to the restrictions contained in Art. 19(2) of the Constitution. This may be both normatively undesirable and impractical, as there are several categories of content that fall outside of Art. 19(2) that we may want platforms to voluntarily restrict, e.g., copyright and trademark infringing content, sexually explicit content not rising to the ‘public morality’ threshold, fraudulent content causing consumer harm etc.)

Thus, legislation/regulation must balance the protections granted to intermediaries with the risk of horizontal censorship. This is trickier than it sounds, as the underlying interests of platforms (maximising advertising revenue by the collection and sale of personal data) and users (free speech and privacy) can diverge significantly.   

The problem magnified manyfold

As I discussed in much greater detail (here), the problem of horizontal censorship is multiplied severalfold because of two crucial factors. First, large online social media platforms are central to public discourse. Second, because there are only a handful of these platforms, simply leaving a platform (or worse being suspended) can severely curtail a user’s participation in public discourse. As Kate Klonick poignantly notes, ‘we are dependent on these private platforms to exercise out public rights.’

The true extent of how vulnerable citizens are is demonstrated at several layers. First, as moderation is conducted by private entities, it is undemocratic. While platforms may respond to public outcries, this only ensures that the already marginalised are disproportionately impacted with little hope of recourse. Next, platforms do not disclose their moderation policies. While ‘Terms of Service’ and ‘Community Guidelines’ are publicly available, the rules and procedures platforms use to take down content constantly change and are rarely disclosed. For example, Facebook ‘accidentally’ blocked the hashtag ‘ResignModi’, later reinstating the content with no explanation as to the procedure employed either in the take down or reinstatement. Finally, the stranglehold online platforms have over public discourse may be leveraged by democratic governments to entrench their power by silencing criticism.

Balancing the scales

Just as gender and caste have historically constituted centres of private power, modern social media represents a new site where citizens are dominated. Regulation must seek to remedy this power imbalance but also ensure that the other interest behind intermediary immunity (incentivising voluntary moderation by not saddling platforms with a ‘publisher’s liability) is not annihilated. The Intermediary Guidelines leaves the basic structure of intermediary immunity untouched (except for several additional compliance requirements by social media companies geared towards expanding investigative and enforcement powers) but attempts to remedy the power imbalance by granting users several reliefs vis-à-vis online intermediaries.    

Just as platforms have the discretion to both take down and not take downspeech, internet users may also seek both outcomes. A user may be aggrieved by content and want an intermediary to take down content (the “Take Down Relief”). Alternatively, a user may be aggrieved by the decision of a platform to take down content, and want it reinstated (the “Keep-Up Relief”).

The Take Down Relief

One part of the Take Down Relief involves citizens approaching courts seeking orders (typically in the form of an injunction) against content being displayed online. The Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal ruled that it was impermissible to require online intermediaries to take down content merely because someone complained against a piece of content – a judicial order was necessary (¶117). The decision is in line with the above stated twin goals of intermediary immunity. By protecting platforms from liability until they received a court order, intermediaries could continue to voluntarily remove the worst forms of content from their sites. Crucially, by protecting platforms from being sued for content on their sites until a court ruled the content was (at least prima facie) unlawful, intermediaries would not take down content en masse, thus avoiding horizontal censorship. Courts would weed out frivolous complaints and direct intermediaries to take down content after balancing all the interests involved.

Thus, users do have a Take Down Relief against illegal content in the form of courts and the Intermediary Guidelines 2021 do not interfere with this relief (in fact they expressly recognise it). However, this is by no means a perfect relief, given the time and costs involved in getting a court order. Further, Rule 3(1)(b) is so broad that courts have little guidance (and a lot of discretion) when deciding to take down online content. For example, the Delhi High Court noted that some factors that should be considered prior to take down are (i) the comparative importance of the rights at issue; (ii) the availability of less restrictive measures; (iii) the costs associated with implementing the measures; and (iv) the efficacy of the measures implemented by the ISP. However, another bench of the High Court merely noted that the plaintiffs had demonstrated a prima facie case of defamation and directed the intermediary to block the content. Yet another bench directed search engines to de-index content and permitted a plaintiff to directly approach Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block additional content uploaded after the original take down order by the court, allowing ISPs to challenge the take down if they believed the plaintiff has exceeded the terms of the original order (which they have no incentive to do).

Rolling back Shreya Singhal

Rule 3(2) of the Intermediary Guidelines 2021 also introduces a new Take Down Relief. A user may launch a complaint where content “exposes the private area of such individual, shows such individual in full or partial nudity or shows or depicts such individual in any sexual act or conduct, or is in the nature of impersonation…” The intermediary is obligated to take down such content within 24 hours of receiving a complaint. On the one hand, the Rule empowers users vis-à-vis social media platforms, and a cogent case may be made that where a user complains over explicit/intimate images of themselves uploaded against their consent, and no other interests are involved, users should not be required to go to court. (Note, they may not even haveto go to court if the intermediary agrees and takes down content once flagged, but that approach puts the relief at the sole discretion of the platform.)

On the other hand, requiring intermediaries to take down content at the behest of a private user was an approach expressly rejected by Shreya Singhal to protect against platforms being swamped by complaints and taking down all content that any other user disagreed with. The simple truth is that hard cases exist. For example, the content complained against may depict two people, one who wants the content to stay online and one who wants it taken down. Now imagine the content is also a matter of public interest. These delicate situations where rights need to be balanced are exactly why Shreya Singhal insisted on court oversight to guard against overzealous complainants and over-cautious platforms.

Efficacy probably lies somewhere between Rule 3(2) and Shreya Singhal and the Guidelines could have: (i) distinguished between cases where interests need to be balanced and where they do not be; (ii) set up an independent body/fast track process to hear take down claims; or (iii) narrowed judicial discretion on when content should be taken down. However, the Guidelines ultimately fails to either improve the court order system of Shreya Singhal but also creates a blanket workaround that may lead to content being taken down at the sole behest of a disgruntled user in delicate cases where rights ought to have been balanced by a court.   

The Keep-Up Relief

Users may also have a grievance when platforms take down content that users believe should have stayed up (e.g., see the suspension of Sanjay Hegde’s Twitter account over: (i) the use of August Landmesser’s photo defying the Nazi salute; and (ii) retweeting a poem by a CPI (Marxist-Leninist) politician). As discussed above, while users can review ‘Terms of Service’ and ‘Community Guidelines’, the actual rules and procedures employed to take down content are not transparent.

Prior to the Intermediary Guidelines 2021, a user could pursue a contractual remedy, arguing that the speech did not violate the platform’s ‘Terms of Service’. Such remedies are unlikely to succeed as contracts are typically skewed in favour of platforms and confer broad discretion to take down content. For example, Facebook’s Terms of Service state that it can “remove or restrict access to your content, services or information if we determine that doing so is reasonable necessary to avoid or mitigate adverse legal or regulatory impacts to Facebook.”

Hedge is presently pursuing a public law remedy under Article 226, arguing that Twitter performs a social/public function and should thus be required to respect his free speech (Art. 19) and non-discrimination (Art. 14) rights. Without going into the merits of this argument, such constitutional gymnastics could be avoided by legislation/regulation that directly gives users recourse against social media platforms. Enter the Intermediary Guidelines 2021.

Before we begin, it should be noted that the Intermediary Guidelines 2021 risks substantially aggravating the problem of intermediary take down itself, by incentivising/mandating social media platforms to employ automated filtering technologies. The imprecision of such technologies is likely to cause more users than ever to seek out a Keep-Up Relief. (See my previous post on the subject here.)

Rule 4(8) of the Guidelines attempts to provide such a Keep-Up Relief. The Rule states that where a Significant Social Media Intermediary voluntarily disables content, the platform must, prior to the disabling of content, provide the creator/poster of the content a “notification explaining the action being taken and the grounds or reasons for such action”. Next, the platform must also provide the user with a “reasonable opportunity” to dispute the platform’s decision and request the reinstatement of the content. This creates a regime where intermediaries must provide reasoned notice and meaningful review to internet users when content is taken down.

On the face of it, this is a step in the right direction as it forces social media platforms to employ some minimum rationality and allows users a chance to contest take down decisions. But how well will this structure of accountability hold up when confronted with hard cases (which it undoubtedly will be)? First, the obligation merely requires social media platforms to provide an opportunity for users to dispute the decision and does not improve on the standards of content evaluation to be applied by them – recall that Rule 3(1)(b) is broad and does not meaningfully restrict the platform’s discretion in decision making. Judges themselves struggle to impose uniform standards on when content should be taken down. While platforms may seek to ensure a measure of uniformity, unlike judicial decisions, the reasoning by platforms under Rule 4(8) is not required to be publicly available and no system of precedent applies – creating a risk of opaque and haphazard decisions.  

The Achilles heel of Rule 4(8)

It is also important to understand that the Intermediary Guidelines 2021 regulate the conditions for intermediary immunity, i.e., the conditions they must satisfy to not be treated as a publisher and sued for hosting unlawful content. Now, even if an intermediary breaches the notice and hearing obligation under Rule 4(8), the consequence is a loss of this legal immunity for hosting unlawful content. But the intermediary is not hosting the content (indeed the whole dispute is because the intermediary is refusing to host the content), so there is no risk for the intermediary to losing this legal immunity. Simply put, intermediaries cannot be sued for content they are not hosting, so there is no legal risk associated with arbitrary voluntary take downs. This highlights the folly of trying to offer users recourse to moderation decisions through conditions of intermediary immunity, which is what the Intermediary Guidelines are. 

Lastly, Rule 4(8) does not open the door for users to go to more legitimate body and argue for content to be reinstated. In fact, if courts were to intervene under Rule 4(8), this would undermine the structure of Section 79 and the Intermediary Guidelines, which are premised on treating intermediaries as neutral even though they voluntarily take down content. In the case of Take Down Reliefs, where Person A is aggrieved by content posted by Person B and asks the Court to direct Intermediary X to stop publishing the content, a Court can provide this relief while still upholding the legal fiction of intermediary neutrality (i.e. accepting Intermediary X’s decision to not take down the content as it is neutral like a newsstand). Section 79, the Guidelines, and Shreya Singhal are premised on not examining the correctness of Intermediary X’s decision to keep the content up.

However, where a platform has taken down content and the user seeks a Keep-Up Relief, Person A would sue Intermediary X for its decision to take down Person A’s post. A court cannot logically grant relief without: (i) acknowledging that Intermediary X is not neutral, in which case it really is more like a newspaper and should be liable for its moderation decision; and (ii) going against the protection for voluntary moderation expressly provided in the Intermediary Guidelines; and/or (iii) engaging in the sort of constitutional and interpretative gymnastics that the Sanjay Hedge case involves. All this leaves the efficacy of the Rule 4(8) Keep-Up Relief at the mercy of large social media companies, and their internal calculus as to whether offering users such recourse will garner them goodwill (see Facebook’s Oversight Board).

Conclusion

The problem the government sought to address with the introduction of the Intermediary Guidelines is a real one. Large social media companies have unbridled power over what users see online at a time when we increasingly live our lives on the internet. This problem cannot be solved unless regulation accepts two significant realities, (i) that intermediary immunity remains central to incentivising intermediaries to moderate content and protecting users against horizontal censorship; and (ii) the current moderation procedures employed by platforms lack transparency, accountability, legal certainty, and disproportionately impact marginalised communities.

By relying solely on the structures of intermediary immunity, the Intermediary Guidelines demonstrates a singular lack of creativity when it comes to regulating online platforms. One alternative approach would be a separate statute with certain minimum standards of conduct for intermediaries (no easy task, but at least one that begins with an acceptance of the problems that need to be solved). As a result, the new Guidelines not only fail to provide users with efficacious remedies to either take down or keep up online content, but it perpetuates the status quo where online platforms are free to exercise arbitrary and dominating power over Indian citizens – with the only meaningful regulatory intervention occurring through government blocking of content when platforms fail to toe the government line.   

The author is grateful to Praharsh Johorey for his comments on the draft of this post.

“Fake News” and the Constitution

As millions of migrant workers made their way from India’s cities back to their villages after the government announced a nation-wide ‘lockdown’, the Solicitor General of India informed the Supreme Court that the exodus was caused by “some fake/misleading news and social media” and sought a direction to prevent “fake and inaccurate reporting” (here). In Maharashtra, an order was passed under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure prohibiting the dissemination of information on social media that was ‘incorrect or distorted facts’ (here). And Kashmir’s new ‘Media Policy – 2020’ states that “Any fake news or any news inciting hatred or disturbing communal harmony shall be proceeded against under IPC/Cyber Laws” (here).

Phrases such as “incitement” and even “disturbing communal harmony” have a long and well-documented use in Indian law (for better or for worse). However, the above narrated incidents demonstrate a recent trend by the Indian government to try and restrict speech on the ground that it constitutes “fake news” (I use speech in the broadest possible term to include the press, broadcasting and online media). India is not alone, countries such as Singapore and Indonesia have introduced full-blown legislation to restrict “fake news”. In this post, I begin by noting that the term “fake news” suffers from several definitional hurdles that point to deeper structural problems in our media eco-system. I argue that there are several very good reasons why we may want to restrict some forms of misinformation. However, any restriction imposed on speech must comply with the constitutional safeguards set out in Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(2). Examining “fake news” restrictions against the concepts of vagueness, overbreadth and a disproportionate chilling effect, I argue that restrictions on “fake new” that are narrowly tailored enough to be constitutionally compliant are unlikely to be effective in combatting the social harms we associate with “fake news”. I conclude by advocating a heterogeneous approach to combat the issue of “fake news”.

A few caveats. First, because India does not yet have a “fake news” legislation, my analysis is necessarily in the abstract (even the Kashmir policy ultimately relies on provisions of the Indian Penal Code for prosecution). This post seeks to evaluate the consequences of restricting “fake news” as a category of speech and I accept that any restrictions imposed by the government may be more nuanced than a blanket restriction on “fake news” (although the signs are not promising). Second, there is a separate but cognate conversation to be had about the role of internet intermediaries in facilitating and restricting “fake news” that is worthy of a separate post and I have not addressed the issue here for the sake of brevity.

Protected Speech and its Limits

Before beginning it pays to recap a few important aspects of free speech regulation in India. While Article 19(1)(a) guarantees citizens the freedom of speech, Article 19(2) allows for “reasonable restrictions” in the interests of inter alia: (i) the sovereignty/integrity of India; (ii) the security of the State; (iii) public order; (iv) decency or morality; (v) defamation; or (vi) incitement to an offence. As we can see, speech in India can be restricted because of its consequences, that it may lead to violence, but also because of the speech’s content – that the meaning conveyed is deemed legally objectionable. The State evidently has an interest in restricting speech that directly leads to violence. However, in the case of obscenity laws or defamation, speech is restricted because of value judgements by the State. Obscene speech does not lead to violence, but the State believes that it leads to an erosion of public morality.

Any restriction on speech must have a proximate connection with a specific head set out in Article 19(2). The government cannot restrict speech merely in the ‘public interest’, or because it is ‘false’, neither of which are heads under Article 19(2). Therefore, if the government wanted to restrict “fake news” it would need to prove that “fake news” either caused harm because of its content (defamation, decency or morality) or that it was inciteful leading to violent consequences (public order, incitement to an offence). Lastly, there is a long line of cases noting that the ‘proximate connection’ means a real and imminent risk of harm arising from the speech and not vague speculation about possible future harms.

Defining “Fake News”

“Fake news” is a term bandied about very loosely nowadays which has resulted in everybody thinking there is consensus about the phenomenon being referred to, but very little certainty as to what content is “fake news” and what content is not. The term has been applied to satire, propaganda, biased reporting, sponsored or promoted content, factually incorrect reporting, entirely fabricated stories, or simply inconvenient truths. The term does not clarify whether it applies to private communications (WhatsApp chats), social media (Facebook), online media (an online-only news organisation) or even traditional print media. In a post Donald Trump era, the term also necessarily carries a derogatory component that is often independent of an objective evaluation of the actual content (Habgood-Coote refers to this as an ‘epistemic slur’). The flip side of this issue is that there is very little certainty about who a “journalist” is today, with citizens receiving news from a wide variety of sources.

The term “fake news” therefore refers to a heterogeneous field of content, some of which have a diverse set of underlying problems. This becomes immediately apparent when we look at the words we used to use to describe this type of content before we began using the umbrella term “fake news”. Inaccurate, false, misleading, biased, sensationalist, propaganda and advertisement are just some of the words to describe what we now call “fake news”. Using an exact term to identify the issue with a piece of content allows us to create targeted and meaningful solutions. For example, the type of regulation needed to regulate factual inaccuracies in a newspaper article is very different from the type of regulation needed to ensure paid advertising can be distinguished from news stories. We need to stop using the umbrella term of “fake news” and begin accurately labelling the specific harms caused by the speech in question.

From a free speech perspective, it is important to note that the distinction between “fake” and “real” is a politically contested one. The more polarised a society, the less likely it is that different parts of a population experience the same political reality. This makes legally regulating the fake/real distinction problematic, as seen in Singapore where the government sent orders to Facebook to “correct” individual posts. The posts alleged that the Singaporean government had illegally influenced investment companies, suppressed whistle-blowers, and rigged elections (here). This is emblematic of how governments can use a restriction on “fake news” to restrict a broad range of criticism and plenty has been written about the Indian government’s efforts to reshape the narrative in Kashmir (here). At the end of the day, governments place a pre-eminent value on self-preservation coupled with a bias towards their own political ideologies, and the ability to determine what is “fake” and what is “real” goes a long way towards silencing opposing viewpoints and homogenising political thought.

That said, there exist more nuanced definitions of “fake news” and a blanket ban on “fake news” is unlikely. For example, the European Union (in non-binding documents) doesn’t use the term “fake news” at all, rather it defines “disinformation” as ‘verifiably false or misleading information which cumulatively is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public and may cause public harm intended as threats to democratic, political and policymaking process as well as public goods’. By requiring an evaluation of the intent behind the creation of the information and a (rather soft) the requirement for actual harm the European definitions seems to be less of a burden on free speech. But this also means it is less effective at curbing the spread of misinformation. Users may spread disinformation legitimately believing it to be true, and how does one assess when a ‘policymaking’ process is harmed? It also does not regulate other harms we associate with “fake news” such as media bias. It is worth keeping these considerations in mind as we consider the harms arising from “fake news” or “disinformation”.

The Argument for Regulating “Fake News”

There are two primary reasons why a government may legitimately wish to regulate “fake news”. First, misinformation or fabricated stories may directly result in violence, either through information about specific individuals or more broadly stoking pre-existing fissures in society (e.g. race or religion). India has already witnessed a string of violent incidents that investigative authorities have noted were either caused by or aggravated due to the spread of disinformation. Second, disinformation can interfere with the electoral process by misinforming voters about candidates’ political opinions, track records, previous misdeeds, and positions on important social issues. An uninformed voter is unable to vote for a candidate that best represents their interests, directly undermining the legitimacy of the electoral process and the resultant government. To make matters worse, disinformation is likely to disproportionately effect voters who do not have access to multiple sources of information (the poor and marginalised).

As Ari Waldman notes, in the long run disinformation can fundamentally alter public discourse by creating false equivalencies, particularly where political leaders spread disinformation. If a factually incorrect statement by a political leader must be accorded equal weight as the truth in the name of journalistic neutrality, a society may waste valuable public time and energy debating false stories (e.g. see the amount of time the U.S. media spends merely correcting President Trump’s demonstrably false statements). Over time, sustained bias or propagandistic reporting can harden political bias, causing citizens to select media sources that merely confirm their existing notions of true or false, further increasing polarisation.

To be clear, traditional justifications for the freedom of speech such as Mill’s argument that more debate over ideas ultimately lead to the truth (culminating with Justice Holmes famous ‘marketplace of ideas’ analogy) are not strictly applicable to “fake news”. To argue that we should produce even more “true news” (counter-speech) rather than restrict “fake news” is problematic for two reasons. First, it doesn’t work and inaction can lead to the type of cyclical harms referred to above (a recent MIT study found that false stories diffused further and faster than true stories on Twitter in all categories of information  (here)– in other words, the truth does not rise to the top).

More fundamentally, Mill’s theory and subsequent adaptations are premised on having more ideas and counter-ideas, not facts and “counter-facts”. Facts and opinions are very distinct in their nature but also share an important relationship when it comes to free speech. While there may be an infinite number of ideas or opinions about a fact, a fact is singular and objective. For example, whether there are Chinese soldiers inside what India considers its territory is a question of fact. The soldiers are either there, or they are not. What India should about the Chinese soldiers and its own territorial claims is a question of opinion with many possible answers. However, it is also important to acknowledge that “factual truth informs political thought” – in other words people’s opinions have a factual basis. For people to have meaningful opinions about the world, and for those opinions to interact with each other in meaningful debate, there must be an agreed upon factual basis. It makes sense not to restrict ideas and opinions because they open new avenues of thinking, however an agreed upon baseline of facts is fundamental to an informed debate about ideas. Returning to our example, how can we debate whether the government’s foreign policy was a success if we do not know whether the Chinese soldiers were in Indian territory or not? Therefore, a freedom of speech justification created to ensure free debate may actually favour some restrictions on “fake news” by ensuring a common baseline of facts.

Legally Restricting “Fake News”

Recall that under the constitutional scheme, all speech is free other than that which the government restricts because it is has a proximate nexus with the specific harms identified by the heads of Article 19(2) (public order, defamation etc.). Although the Indian Supreme Court has never explicitly dealt with the question of whether factually false statements are protected under the Constitution (the U.S. Supreme Court in Alvarez explicitly held such statements to be protected under the U.S. Constitution) factual inaccuracy is not a ground to restrict free speech under Article 19(2). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that if the government wanted to restrict speech it classified as “fake news”, it would have to argue that the speech was either defamatory, would lead to a breach of public order, or amounted to an incitement to an offence. What amounts to a valid restriction under these heads of 19(2) have been widely discussed elsewhere on this blog and I do not intend to rehash them. Rather I argue that restrictions on “fake news” are likely to fall foul of two principles: (i) vagueness, (ii) overbreadth leading to a disproportionate chilling effect on speech.

Vagueness: A law is unconstitutionally vague if ordinary citizens cannot determine whether they have broken it or not. Imagine a law which restricted citizens from “honking too much” at traffic signals. How does a citizen determine how much is “too much”? The law does not provide a fair warning to citizens as to whether their actions will break the law or not. Vague laws also grant officials a large amount of discretion as to when a law has been breached or not (would you trust a police-officer to tell you when you are honking too much?).

Restricting speech on the ground that it is “fake news” would likely lead to widespread confusion about what kind of speech the government was restricting. Recall the broad range of content that comes under the banner of “fake news” – from satire to inaccurate reporting to fabricated stories. More nuanced definitions (such as that proposed by the European Union) may remedy this issue but are still unwieldy. The line between advocacy and deception is often imperceptible, with compelling arguments often cherry-picking or manipulating facts. Further, terms such as ‘threats to the democratic, political and policymaking process’ are so wide that they substantially increase the risk of the government selectively prosecuting speakers with unfavourable opinions. Kashmir is a living example of where free speech has been left entirely to the whims of the executive, and it has led to the denial of internet services, the arbitrary blocking of websites, and the persecution of journalists.

Overbreadth: A restriction on speech is “overbroad” when it restricts both the speech that the government can legally restrict (e.g. hate speech) but also goes on to restrict speech other speech that is constitutionally protected (e.g. dissent). In Shreya Singhal, the Supreme Court was called to adjudicate upon the constitutionality of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which criminalised speech that was “grossly offensive”. The court noted that any citizen may advocate a view on governmental, literary, or scientific issues that may be unpalatable or even “grossly offensive” to other citizens. While some speech may be justifiably restricted, not all speech that was “grossly offensive” rose to the level where there was an imminent risk to public order or incitement. This meant that, by using the term “grossly offensive” Section 66A also ultimately criminalised constitutionally protected speech. The court observed:

Section 66-A purports to authorise the imposition of restrictions on the fundamental right contained in Article 19(1)(a) in language wide enough to cover restrictions both within and without the limits of constitutionally permissible legislative action […] It must therefore, be held to be wholly unconstitutional and void.”

The term “grossly offensive” was so broad that it restricted some speech justifiably, but also other speech unjustifiably. In Shreya Singhal the court distinguished between discussion, advocacy, and incitement. It held that the first two formed the heart of constitutionally protected speech while inciteful speech may be legally restricted. Simply put, restrictions on speech that restrict inciteful speech and are broad enough to go on and restrict discussion and advocacy are unconstitutional.

If the government were to restrict “fake news” (a very broad category of speech), it would also likely restrict a vast amount of constitutionally protected discussion and advocacy. At its bluntest, satire, parody, and anti-government reporting could fall under the ambit of “fake news”. More critically, a restriction on “fake news” would create the risk of liability for journalists and media houses, that a single inaccurate factual assertion could lead to censorship or punitive action. For example, Kashmir’s new ‘Media Policy’ flat out dis-empanels journalists for publishing “fake news”. A news-report that exposed governmental overreach but contained a minor factual error or irregularity could be termed “fake news”, robbing readers of valuable information and robbing journalists of their livelihood.

Where restrictions on speech are vague, overbroad, and punitive, they create a chilling effect on speakers. Content creators, journalists, publishers, media houses and ordinary citizen are likely to ‘err on the side of caution’ and simply not speak rather than run the risk of their speech being adjudged as a crime. To avoid this chilling effect, the law of defamation incorporates what is known as the “actual malice” standard. It states that unless a speaker’s statement evidences ‘actual malice or a reckless disregard for the truth’, the statement cannot be considered defamatory. The logic is simple, with the vast amount of free-flowing debate in society a few inaccuracies are bound to crop up. Rather than aggressively prosecute these minor inaccuracies and frighten all other speakers, the law states that where these inaccuracies do not possess any ‘actual malice’ they are exempt from prosecution. In Rajagopal the Indian Supreme Court adopted the ‘actual malice’ standard in civil defamation cases and recently, the Madras High Court has adopted the standard in the context of criminal defamation (here). Defamation requires an alleged injury to reputation, something not all “fake news” is likely to cause. However, the rationale that minor inaccuracies should not lead to punitive action which has a chilling effect on speech should certainly apply, and any restrictions on “fake news” should incorporate the ‘actual malice’ standard.

The Government and the Truth

One last point may be made before concluding. In Alvarez, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a statute which punished persons for falsely claiming to have been awarded military medals. In striking down the law, the court noted that that it was wary of the government claiming ‘broad censorial power to regulate falsehoods’, the mere existence of which would have a chilling effect on speech. To be clear, the government does regulate falsehoods in certain cases, most notably in the areas of defamation, consumer protection and fraud, and perjury. This is accepted because, the restrictions on speech are limited to the contexts where they are especially likely to cause harm and are actionable only where they cause actual harm to identifiable individuals. A restriction on “fake news” is much broader. A good news eco-system is more akin to a public good like a clean environment and “fake news” often attacks issues more than people – where it does attack people, the remedy of defamation is always open. Similarly, where the “fake news” is inciteful and capable of causing violence, India already possess a host of anachronistic laws that can be used to restrict and prosecute speech capable of causing violence. Without this proximate connection to real threats, regulating “fake news” creates the spectre of a government truth, something any democracy should be wary off.

Conclusion

The phenomenon often branded as “fake news” can lead to a diverse set of harms ranging from violence, damage to the electoral system and increased political polarisation. However, when examined in light of India’s freedom of speech jurisprudence, restricting “fake news” is constitutionally fraught. Above all, it is important to remember that the government cannot restrict speech merely because it is “false” or “inaccurate”. Briefly, any restriction on “fake news” would need to (i) show some real, imminent and identifiable harm; (ii) the harm would need to be a constitutionally recognised ground to restrict free speech under Article 19(2); (iii) consider questions of medium, time and impact of the “fake news”; (iv) incorporate the ‘actual malice’ standard; and (vi) be the least restrictive measure at the government’s disposal. This is not to say that it is impossible to draft legislation regulating “fake new” (several countries have already done it). There may be real value in pursuing narrow restrictions to reduce the effects of active disinformation campaigns during especially sensitive times (e.g. the run-up to elections). However, the phenomena of “fake news” rarely appears in such convenient forms and speech restrictions that are constitutionally compliant are unlikely to address the other diverse and systemic harms that “fake news” causes.

I began by noting that “fake news” is an amalgam term that houses several underlying issues we associate with our media-ecosystem. Understanding the underlying issues can lead to targeted solutions that bolster media literacy amongst the population and reduce the economic and political incentives associated with fabricated or propagandistic stories. Examples include ensuring a competitive media industry, disclosures requirements on social media sites about promoted content, investment in a truly independent state broadcaster, media literacy education in schools, and ultimately targeted legal interventions where constitutionally compliant speech restrictions may be meaningfully enforced. Merely sounding alarm bells at the rise of “fake news” opens the door to restrictions on speech and government censorship.

This post was largely in response to Kashmir’s Media Policy, which along with the Solicitor General’s statements represent a worrying trend by the government to adopt the clumsy but incredibly dangerous fake/real distinction to assert a dominant, government controlled narrative. In the future, I am sure there will arise more concrete examples that lend themselves to more detailed critique. The government’s position has long been that speech in Kashmir rejects the paradigm of the Indian State itself, representing a unique threat to the integrity of India. However, where the government seeks to preserve power through a stranglehold on truth itself, we have to ask ourselves whether the means employed to preserve the State have overridden what the State once stood for.