India proposes to replace its two-decades-old IT law

India is proposing to replace its over two-decades-old IT law as the world’s second-largest internet market pushes for new guidelines to seek broader accountability from tech firms, revaluate who all gets protection from safe harbor, better oversee new technologies and serve "every" connected user in the South Asian market.

Details are scant about how precisely the proposed framework, called Digital India Act, will oversee different factions of the internet, but a key minister said on Thursday that the act will aim to replace the IT Act, 2000, which was created two decades ago and maintains limited mandates for legal recognition for the modern internet in the wake of challenges in the form of user harm, ambiguity in user rights, proliferation of hate speech and misinformation and unfair trade practices.

Indian laws should be able to handle the complexity and rapid expansion of the types of intermediaries, evolve and be consistent with market trends, disruption in technologies, development in international jurisprudence and global standards for qualitative service/products delivery framework, Ministry of State and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar told a gathering in Bengaluru. The minister said he hopes to finalize the bill by the end of this month.

“There will be nobody on the internet who is excluded from the ambit of the Digital India Act,” he said.

“In order to rapidly create, modify and enforce regulations, it will adopt ‘principles and rule-based approach’ to regulation which provides a legislative framework under government principles and effective measures for securing compliance with the ever evolving rule of law,” he said.

The proposed framework seeks to address in part what the minister deemed as an urgent need for a specialized and dedicated adjudicatory mechanism for online and criminal offenses.

Chandrasekhar likened his proposal to similar pushes from regulators in other markets. Both digitally literate and novice individuals are on the internet today, hence an urgency for the need to ensure online safety, he said.

The bill proposes to introduce an adjudicatory mechanism for online and criminal offenses that delivers timely remedies to citizens, resolves cyber disputes, develops a unified cyber jurisprudence and enforces the rule of law online. It will also look to safeguard innovation to enable emerging technologies like AI/ML, web3, autonomous systems/robotics, IoT/distributed ledger/blockchain, quantum computing, virtual reality/augmented reality, real-time language translators and natural language processing, he added.

In response to a question from the audience, Chandrasekhar asserted that Digital India Act will not get involved with the moderation of content on platforms.

The minister also said that the new law might relook at the accountability of grievance offers assigned by online platforms to address user issues. He asserted that there is a need for separate rules for each class of intermediaries and whether the provision of safe harbor should be in place for these intermediaries.

On how the government will deal with cybersecurity issues, Chandrasekhar said cybersecurity would be a part of the Digital India Act. While the recently introduced Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, which is yet to be passed in the parliament, is set to take precedence in cases of personal data breaches, the Digital India Act proposed law will work as “more overarching” and deal with user harm, he said.

The new law will be a successor to the existing IT Act, but jurisprudence from the original law remains intact. He also noted that the law would be aimed at dealing with issues impacting the country’s children and young internet users. However, concrete details on how it will tackle such instances are yet to be revealed.

Kazim Rizvi, founding director of New Delhi-based public-policy think-tank The Dialogue, said the new law should continue to align with the jurisprudence prescribed in Shreya Singhal and that the Safe Harbour provision is preserved given its significance for a free and open internet and should consider the evolving multifunctional system of the platforms instead of taking a straight-jacketed approach for classifying intermediaries.

"The government’s intentions and efforts are commendable, however given the catena of other policy interventions underway, like the Data Protection Law, Competition law amendment and Telecommunication Bill, it is important that all these regulatory interventions are well coordinated and harmonized and there are no overlaps that would stifle innovation and pose implementational concerns," he said.

The exact timeline on when the law will be enacted is yet to be decided, though the government has started taking comments from stakeholders. The minister also said the government would set up consultations in various Indian cities before the implementation.