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regular-article-logo Saturday, 20 April 2024

Troubling bills

The Data Protection Board is problematic because all its members will be appointed by the Union government (Clause 19(2)), putting its independence in doubt

Sevanti Ninan Published 21.08.23, 05:00 AM
Unfair terms.

Unfair terms. Sourced by the Telegraph

Practising journalism in India is increasingly becoming an anxiety-inducing business. Technology platforms that distribute publishers’ news content in a digital ecosystem threaten the latter’s viability because getting fair terms from the platforms is a sustainability issue. And the State keeps coming up with new laws and rules to keep news organisations on edge, threatening their freedom to do their job.

The government’s legislative zeal in this monsoon session of Parliament has left media practitioners and civil society at large with more to be anxious about. The digital personal data protection bill as passed enables many things. There is a clause, 37(1)(b), which will allow the Union government to censor content on vague and unspecified grounds in public interest. Mandating consent for publishing personal data ensures that material unfavourable to the data principal would simply not get published. Journalism and civil society bodies have pointed out that the bill unreasonably widens the scope of exemptions available to public information officers of government ministries and departments to reject right to information applications on the basis that the information sought “relates to personal information” (Clause 44(3)).

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Clause 12(3) enables a person who consented to share personal data with a news publication/journalist to exercise the right to erasure and to have personal information and/or the news article removed even if public interest is greater. As the DigiPub statement says, more often than not, those who want to be forgotten are the ones who need to be remembered. It adds that the current version of the bill, however, makes no exceptions for public interest journalism and, as such, opens up media organisations to legal risks when they report on the activities of certain individuals.

Will it mean that a journalist can be handed a punishing fine for an investigative story the government does not approve of?

Then the Data Protection Board is problematic because all its members will be appointed by the Union government (Clause 19(2)), putting its independence in doubt.

It has been noted that the digital personal data protection bill started out with the European Union version as a model but has ended up sounding like the Chinese version. There is more State protection in it than citizen protection but the minister of state for information technology told The Indian Express, too bad, that’s the way it needs to be because the government has to deal with terrorism, law and order, and public health emergencies.

The monsoon session of Parliament also saw the passing of the press and registration of periodicals bill, 2023, in the Rajya Sabha. This replaces the existing Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867. The government says it is promoting the ease of doing business because it enables online registration of a periodical which makes it a remote process. But press bodies have pointed out that Section 19 of the bill gives the Union government powers to frame rules under which news publishing is to be done in India. An Editors Guild statement cited the example of IT Rules 2021 and the latest amendments made to it regarding “setting up of a ‘fact checking unit’ with sweeping powers to order content take down” and urged that the rules under the Press Registration Act be clearly defined in the proposed bill and not be left to the discretion of a future government or authority.

The second anxiety-causing issue with no resolution in sight is the challenge of publishers dealing with Big Tech platforms on sustainability issues. Platforms are not sharing revenues adequately. While some countries in the Global South are getting the backing of their governments and Competition Commissions to negotiate with Big Tech, Indian news publishers don’t quite see the government batting for them with any degree of enthusiasm.

The Competition Commission of India and the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal had brought Google to the table on anti competitive conduct in the Android ecosystem earlier this year and got it to pay a fine of Rs 1,337 crore, but publishers’ bodies in this country have been waiting since early 2022 for a ruling on their submissions about unfair terms from platforms that feature their news in search results. The CCI clubbed petitions of the Digital News Publishers Association, the Indian Newspaper Society and others in October 2022, but a ruling is still awaited. Neither the government nor the CCI is showing enough urgency on this issue.

Meanwhile, at the end of July, the Competition Commission of South Africa announced tough terms for Google to comply with and Indonesia has come up with a quality journalism draft regulation called the Presidential Regulation on Digital Platform Companies’ Responsibility to Support Quality Journalism. Among other things, it calls for algorithm transparency from platforms. This draft regulation has a sting in the tail because it also requires digital platform companies to prevent the dissemination and commercialisation of content that is deemed inconsistent with the laid down Journalistic Code of Conduct. That’s interference in content, for sure. Governments forcing platforms to share revenues has also seen pushbacks from Big Tech, with Meta hitting back in Canada and Google in Australia. Smaller publishers the world over fear this scenario where access to their news sites could be blocked.

In late July, a conference in Johannesburg on Big Tech and journalism drew up what it called “Principles for Fair Compensation to Provide a Basis for Engagement between Platforms and Publishers.” The goal being to ensure news media sustainability in the tumultuous era of Big Tech. This issue is here to stay, it will be a long fight, and Indian publishers need the backing of their government and regulator to bring platforms to the negotiation table.

The only problem is that the government of the day has more use for Big Tech platforms than it has for the conventional news tribe.

Sevanti Ninan is a media commentator and was the founder-editor of TheHoot.org

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