Whatever the intention behind them, the new rules framed last month under the Information Technology Act, 2000 are likely to have a chilling effect on the development of the Internet as a medium of communication and information in India. Apart from the unreasonable restrictions on free speech they envisage, the rules raise serious concerns about the privacy of a citizen's personal information, including medical profile, financial position, and sexual orientation. The problem lies with three sets of rules that create guidelines on “intermediaries” and cyber cafes and on the manner in which “sensitive personal data or information” can be shared, especially with government agencies. Intermediaries, defined as those who store, transmit, or provide services related to electronic messages, will henceforth be obligated to block content or information that “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…” This description is so vague and open-ended that it is likely to lead Internet Service Providers, webmasters, and others to play it safe and shut off access to views and opinions that they consider controversial. The rules specify a mechanism for appeal but the permissible time frame of one month is far too long to offer any meaningful redressal of grievances.
The rules on privacy represent an advance in one respect: they prohibit companies with whom an individual has shared her or his sensitive personal information from disclosing it to any third party without prior permission from that individual. But an exception is made for government agencies; they will be entitled to access that information without a court warrant simply on the basis of a written request that states that the information is required for the investigation of a crime. Although these agencies are, in turn, obligated not to share that information with anyone else, this ‘safeguard' is of little value to citizens who value their privacy vis-à-vis the state. The fact that officially sanctioned telephone intercepts have made their way into the public domain points to the danger of giving officials access to personal information. Nor is it clear how crime can be fought by police officers gathering details about a potential suspect's “physical, physiological and mental health condition; sexual orientation; and medical records and history,” as the rules partially define “sensitive personal data or information.” Such rules have no place on the statute book of a democracy that values the rights of its citizens. Parliament should insist that the government take another look.