MeitY's response to our RTI requests on GAC: delayed, denied, deficient.

MeitY responded to our 1st appeal on the RTI application pertaining to the functional and operational processes of the Grievance Appellate Committees (GAC). This post summarises the Ministry’s response (or the lack thereof) to our 1st appeal, and elaborates on our concerns denied information.

19 May, 2023
7 min read

tl;dr

The Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology (MeitY) responded to our first appeal on the RTI application filed on March 14, 2023. Our questions pertained to the functional and operational processes of the Grievance Appellate Committees (GAC). This post summarises the Ministry’s response (or the lack thereof) to our first appeal, and elaborates on our concerns around the denial of information regarding the GAC’s functioning.

Timeline:

  • March 14: We filed an RTI application seeking info on the GAC.
  • April 19: The status of the RTI application on the RTI portal merely stated “request forwarded to CPIO”. Upon not receiving the information within and beyond the statutory 30 day period, we filed a first appeal in the interest of transparency and accountability. We filed the first appeal only after our repeated efforts to contact the CPIO, whose number was listed on the RTI status.
  • April 20: We received a response to our RTI application. However, this was not sent to us within the stipulated time frame. Moreover, we would like to note that delay of information amounts to its denial.
  • May 11: We received a response to our first appeal.

What we asked & what they said:

  • The number of appeals (as of the date of filing the present RTI) received by the Grievance Appellate Committee established under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 made under the Information Technology Act, 2000.
  • The number of appeals disposed of (as of the date of filing the present RTI) by the Grievance Appellate Committee established under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 made under the Information Technology Act, 2000.

Both the RTI response dated April 20 and the first appeal response dated May 11 revealed that as of April 19, the GAC received 42 appeals and disposed of 32. The real-time updated information regarding this is available on the GAC website. As of today, i.e. May 19, 2023, the GAC has received 54 appeals and disposed of 39 appeals.

  • The speaking orders passed by the Grievance Appellate Committee disposing of appeals against intermediaries.

Both the RTI response and the first appeal response revealed that the speaking orders passed by GAC for disposing of appeals against intermediaries is seven. Speaking or reasoned orders essentially mean orders that were passed with accompanying reasoning in support of the decision. It is necessary for all courts, quasi-judicial bodies, tribunals, etc., in India to follow the principles of natural justice, one of which is giving reasons for an order passed by them (i.e., reasoned order). Given that the GAC is a quasi-judicial body, it is their obligation by law to provide each order passed with an accompanying speaking/ reasoned order. Based on the RTI and first appeal response, it is our understanding that out of the 32 disposed appeals, only seven were accompanied by speaking orders. Thus, 25 appeals appear to have been disposed of by the GAC without providing a reasoning for the decision taken.

It is important to consider the possibility that these 25 appeals did not elicit any further action on the appeal, and were disposed of with the conclusion that no further action was required. It may have also been disposed of because it didn’t consist of enough or the relevant information required to satisfactorily resolve the appeal. However, it is important to note that any such scenario still requisites a speaking order clarifying the reasoning behind the decision taken. This further instils confidence among the complainant and increases the GAC’s accountability.

We have previously voiced concerns around the fact that the Grievance Redressal Officer (“GRO”) of non-significant social media intermediaries are not required to furnish reasons for the decision taken regarding complaints received by them. It is thus extremely disappointing to note this lack of obligation on the intermediaries and especially the GAC to furnish reasons either to the user whose content may have been actioned against or to the intermediary against whose decision the appeal was filed.

  • The details of the Grievance Appellate Committee (Ministry under which the Committee has been established and composition of the Committee) which disposed of the appeals filed before them.

MeitY, in the response to our RTI application, refused to share the details of the specific Committee which disposed of the appeals, citing Section 8(1)/(j) of the RTI Act, 2000, stating that “it invades the privacy of the individual”. It then states that 20 appeals have been disposed of. This is in contrast to the number provided by the Ministry in the same RTI response, i.e. 32 disposed appeals. It is concerning to note that a tool meant to further transparency and accountability is being used by the government to withhold information on unreasonable grounds or provide inconsistent information.

In response to the first appeal, MeitY merely stated that the details of the GACs are available on public domain. The link provided in the response is the Gazette notification by MeitY dated January 27, 2023, which includes the details of the composition of the 3 GACs. The notification had revealed that the three GACs will be led by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB), and MeitY respectively. Marking a departure from the RTI response, the first appeal response does not refuse to share details sought by citing Section 8(1)/(j). This inconsistency among the two responses to the same question answered by the same authority only creates confusion and frustration, especially since the details sought have not been provided in either response.

Through this question, we sought details on the bifurcation/ segregation of appeals among the three GACs. Specifically, how many and which appeals were disposed of by the MHA led, MIB led, and MeitY led GAC respectively. This information becomes useful for ascertaining the share of the different categories of appeals being filed and disposed of. This request emerges from an Economic Times article dated March 01, 2023, which revealed that segregation of cases will be done “automatically”, with the MHA led GAC largely dealing with “complaints on illegal or criminal activities”, the MIB led GAC handling “misinformation or fake content”, and the MeitY led GAC working on issues relating to “copyright issues or any other unlawful activity that is otherwise not covered elsewhere”. Since this information was revealed by unnamed sources and the Ministry didn’t make public any operating standard/ procedure for segregating appeals among the three GACs, we felt the need to seek information on this from the Ministry. However, both responses received on our request further deepens our disappointment and weakens our faith in the GAC’s functional transparency.

  • The details of all IT intermediaries as defined under the Information Technology Act, 2000 against whose decisions the appeals had been filed before the Grievance Appellate Committee.

This information was again denied in both the responses under Section 8(1)/(j) of the RTI Act, 2000, i.e. the information has no relation to any public activity or interest, or it may cause unwarranted invasion of privacy. Here, the information we requested pertained to the list of intermediaries against whose decision the appeals were filed by users. This information would have been useful to ascertain the number of appeals filed against each intermediary. Since we didn’t ask the details of the appeals filed against intermediaries and only requested information about the intermediaries, it is unreasonable for them to state that this information may cause an unwarranted invasion of privacy. Such information is also in the public interest because it would reveal a lot about the intermediaries' redress mechanism and may facilitate research around it.

  • Whether the speaking orders passed by the Grievance Appellate Committee would be disclosed to the general public, as stated in the Press Release dated January 28, 2023.

In both cases, the Ministry has responded stating that the “information pertaining to speaking orders passed by the GAC would not be disclosed to the general public as they contain personal information of complainant”. Such non-disclosure of information is not in the spirit of democratic principles and in direct contradiction of MeitY’s press release which indicated “reporting and disclosures of GAC orders”. Releasing such reasoned orders would only repose the confidence of users in the GAC’s operational process and reduce fears of the GAC arbitrarily taking decisions.

Several quasi-judicial bodies in India, such as the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT), National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Competition Commission of India (CCI), etc.,  publish the details of the cases/appeals, along with the reasoned order/ judgement in some cases. Furthermore, the Ministry could adopt the practice of releasing details of the appeals by redacting the personal information of the complainant.

Notably, under the IT Rules, 2021 amended in 2022, the intermediaries are required to upload on their website a report reflecting their compliance with the GAC order. On the other hand, there appears to be no obligation on the GAC to provide the intermediary, complainant as well as the affected user with the reasoning and justification behind its decision. In the absence of such transparent reporting mechanisms, the accountability of the government-appointed committee is further reduced.

Action taken by IFF

We have previously highlighted the secrecy around the GAC’s establishment, functioning, and processes, as well as the lack of transparency in its reporting mechanism. We will be taking the following action against this response in the hopes of increasing the Committee’s accountability to the users:

  1. File a second appeal requesting the Ministry to reveal information sought under the 5th question.
  2. File a fresh RTI application with rephrased questions to seek the denied information under the 4th question.

We would also like to reiterate our long standing demand that any future version of the IT Rules, 2021 substantially engage with the recommendations put forth by the Standing Committee on Subordinate Legislation’s report on the IT Rules, 2011. One of the recommendations in the report was on “Providing procedural safeguards when content is removed such as an obligation to provide reasoned order, a right to be heard to the content creator and the right to appeal the decision of the authority” [Section B (Para 49)].

Important Documents:

  1. First appeal response dated May 11, 2023 (link)
  2. First appeal filed on April 19, 2023 (link)
  3. RTI response dated April 20, 2023 (link)
  4. RTI application on GAC dated March 14, 2023 (link)
  5. IFF’s blog: “#5 questions to ask the GAC” (link)
  6. IT Amendment Rules, 2022 Public Brief (link)

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