The Monsoon Session of Parliament came to an end on August 11, 2023 when both Houses of Parliament adjourned sine die. The Session saw the introduction of 25 bills and the passage of several key legislations including the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill (DPDPB), 2023 by both Houses. In this post, we look at how our Parliament performed from a digital rights perspective.
Why should you care?
This year, the Monsoon Session began on July 20 and concluded on August 11 sitting for a total of 17 days. While the Session saw many bills get the assent of Parliament, a worrying trend this Session was the lack of proper and meaningful discussion on legislation of paramount importance. Many bills were passed with minimal debate and little to no inputs from the opposition. 56% of bills introduced during this Session were passed by both Houses of Parliament, and on average, a bill was passed within eight days of introduction. This coupled with regular boycotts of Parliament from the opposition over the Manipur issue, resulted in crucial legislation being passed with superficial deliberations.
Overall, the Lok Sabha sat for only 43% of the allocated time and the Rajya Sabha for 55% of the allocated time. The passage of 23 bills in the context of such low productivity is indicative of legislation being passed without in-depth discussion which makes dwelling upon the recently concluded session a must.
Bills and Legislations concerning digital rights
The Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023
One of the most important legislation from a digital rights point of view was the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2023 which recently became an Act after receiving the President’s Assent. The legislation which was meant to crystalise the right to privacy and provide for personal data protection was passed by both Houses of Parliament during the Monsoon Session. In total, the complex legislation was only discussed for 2 hours combining the deliberation across both Houses. To make matters worse, the bill was passed before the Rajya Sabha with minimal inputs from neutral and opposition Members of Parliament (MPs), with some opposition MPs walking out of the House during deliberations on the bill.
India has waited a long time for a comprehensive data protection law, “6 years in making (sic)” if we follow the words of the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, Ashwini Vaishnaw. Contrary to the various claims of the government, the present Act comprises of disappointing provisions such as widening of exemptions to the government and government entities (Section 7 and 17), weakening of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (Section 44), excessive rule-making power delegated to the executive, questionable independence of the Data Protection Board (Section 18), amongst others. We have covered this in our first-read analysis here.
Read our analysis of the DPDPB being considered, deliberated upon, and passed in both Houses of Parliament here.
The Registration of Births and Deaths (Amendment) Act, 2023
The Registration of Births and Deaths (Amendment) Bill, 2023, now Act (Amendment Act, 2023), amends the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969 to make Aadhaar mandatory to track births and deaths in every family. Section 4 of the Amendment Act, 2023 (which amends Section 3 of the parent Act) builds an entire database of births and deaths which will be utilised to update every other government database available, including the National Population Register, Electoral Rolls, Driving Licence, Passport, etc. Section 13 of the Amendment Act, 2023 (which amends Section 17 of the parent Act) makes birth certificates mandatory for schools, government jobs, registration for voting, registration of marriage, etc. for persons born after the commencement of the amendment act.
The Amendment Act, 2023 goes far beyond a simple amendment and essentially puts in place a government surveillance and population tracking tool which will cover every aspect of an individual’s life. In a nutshell, the amendment act will allow the government to track every Indian throughout their life, from birth to death.
The legislation of such paramount importance was only discussed for 1 hour across both Houses of Parliament with only 10 MPs taking part in the discussion across the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
The Cinematography (Amendment) Act, 2023
The Cinematography (Amendment) Act, 2023 amends the Cinematograph Act, 1952, the legislation which established the Board of Film Certification for certifying films for exhibition. The Amendment Act, 2023 adds additional categories for certification, including separate certificates for television and other media, and prohibits the unauthorised recording and/or exhibition of films. The amendment was discussed for almost 3 hours combining the discussion before both Houses of Parliament with 24 MPs contributing to the debate across both Houses.
During discussion on the amendment, the issue surrounding regulation of content on over-the-top media service platforms (OTT platforms) was raised by a few MPs. In response, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Anurag Thakur said that OTT platforms were bound by the Code of Ethics enshrined in the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 which gives these platforms power to self regulate their content. Further he mentioned that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) had held a meeting with OTT players to ensure they remain responsible under their self regulatory power to ensure vulgar and obscene content is regulated and at present, they’re awaiting a report on steps taken by the OTT players. The Minister went on to say that failure to regulate objectionable content on part of OTT platforms will lead to the MIB stepping in and regulating content on OTT platforms. He concluded by clarifying that the Ministry was not keen on stepping in and regulating content on such platforms, and assured that he will put forward the concerns raised by the House in their subsequent meeting.
The Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill, 2023
The Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill, 2023 which seeks to repeal and replace the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 was introduced before the Rajya Sabha on August 1, 2023 and passed within 2 days of its introduction with approximately 2 hours of debate on the legislation. The bill is yet to be introduced in the Lok Sabha.
The proposed bill under Clause 4(1) and 11(4) allows the government to deny the publication of any periodical to persons convicted of an offence “involving terrorist act or unlawful activity” and “for having done anything against the security of the State.” This alone isn’t cause for worry but coupled with the arbitrary use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 by the Union Government, the proposed law may be used against dissenting voices such as media outlets and journalists to repress their right to freedom of speech. Further, Clause 19 of the Bill gives the executive power to frame rules which will govern new publishing in India.
On August 6, 2023, the Editors Guild of India released a statement highlighting their concerns over the bill, specifically the adverse impact it might have on press freedom. The Guild urged that the bill be referred to a Parliamentary Committee.
Replacing the IPC, CrPC and IEA
On the last day of the Monsoon Session, the Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah introduced the 3 bills to repeal and replace the Indian Penal Code (IPC), the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and the Indian Evidence Act (IEA).
The Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita (BNS), 2023 (which seeks to replace the IPC), the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita (BNSS), 2023 (which seeks to replace the CrPC) and the Bharatiya Sakshya Bill (BSB), 2023 (which seeks to replace the IEA) have been referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs on August 18, 2023 by the Rajya Sabha Chairperson in consultation with the Lok Sabha Speaker for examination and report within three months. Further, the Parliamentary Standing Committee has already scheduled meetings for the presentation of the bills by the Home Secretary to the Members of the Standing Committee from August 24 to August 26, 2023.
Throughout the Monsoon Session, we tracked the significant answers to parliamentary questions placed in both the Houses by various members. A few key responses received were:
On the mandatory production of Aadhaar for admission in government schools: The Ministry of Education has said that in a circular dated September 5, 2018, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has clarified that no child will be denied admission and other facilities for lack of production of Aadhaar. Further, the Department of School Education has issued a notification dated November 29, 2021 stating that no eligible child will be denied benefit of the Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Samagra Shiksha for the want of an Aadhaar number. (See the response here and our thread here)
On Pressurising Twitter during Farmer Agitations: MeitY denied the claim concerning the shutdown of Twitter services in India and the raid at homes of Twitter employees’ and executives over the non-compliance of blocking orders during the farmers agitation. However, as per reports, Twitter Co-Founder, Jack Dorsey claimed that Twitter received significant pressure from the government, including threats of shutting down the platform, closing down their offices, and conducting raids on homes of the executives. (See the response here)
On the Fact Checking Unit under the Press Information Bureau (PIB): The MIB released the month wise details of actionable queries between November, 2020 to June, 2023 and also clarified that no fact check unit has been notified under the IT Amendment Rules, 2023 yet. While the data provided indicates that the PIB received over 28,000 actionable queries, our RTI response revealed that nearly 1.2 lakh queries (non-actionable) have been received since April 2020 out of which only 1,223 have been acted upon – showing a modest 1% action rate. (See the response here and our thread here)
However, the MIB did not respond to the questions which inquired if there are any domain experts on the PIB fact checking body and asked whether there is any provision to appeal their decisions. In an RTI response received by IFF, the PIB admitted that there are no domain experts with the Fact Check Unit and is run by two officers of the Indian Information Services. (See the response here)
On mandatory linking of Voter ID and Aadhaar: The Ministry of Law and Justice (MOLJ) stated that the Aadhaar Act, 2016 does not mandatorily require the linking of Aadhaar and Voter ID. However, after the passage of the Election Laws (Amendment) Act, 2021 which amends the Representation of the People Act, 1950 and the Representation of the People Act, 1951, electoral officers may ask for Aadhaar number to establish identity on a voluntary basis. Despite this claim by the MOLJ and several RTI responses received by IFF reiterating the voluntary nature of this exercise, several Indians have been coerced to link their Aadhaar to their Voter IDs. (See the response here and our thread here)
On blocking of social media accounts: Concerning the issue of revoking a blocking order, MeitY stated that under Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000 and IT Rules, 2009 a provision exists to issue a notice to the concerned person/entity to appear or send a response at least 48 hours prior to the meeting of the Committee for examination of request for blocking. MeitY also gave data on number of URLs that the Union Government has issued direction to block in the last 3 years:
However, MeitY claimed to not have any data on the number of social media accounts banned, number of followers/subscribers, or the number of revoked bans, citing their requirement to maintain strict confidentiality on requests and complaints received and actions taken with regard to blocking. (See the response here and our thread here)
On Aadhaar data leak: MeitY claimed that there have been no breaches of the Aadhaar card holders’ data in the last 3 years. The Ministry also clarified that the Central Identities Data Repository is not linked to any external database, such as bank databases. However, reports dated June 14, 2022 suggest that Aadhaar data of over 110 million farmers were leaked through the PM-Kisan website. (See the response here and our thread here)
The number of bills passed by both Houses of Parliament would misrepresent the effectiveness of the Parliament’s functioning during the Monsoon Session. Out of the 22 bills that the Lok Sabha passed this Session, 20 bills including the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2023 (now Act) were passed with less than an hour of debate which does not bode well for the status of Parliamentary process in India. On at least 8 working days out of the total 17, the opposition MPs walked out of the Rajya Sabha for one or multiple sessions over the Manipur issue, thus allowing crucial bills to pass without proper discussion.
The Parliament is adjourned until the Winter Session, however the functioning of Parliament during the recently concluded Monsoon Session compromised the role of Parliamentary discourse in the formation of law, almost rendering it moot.
- The Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023 (Link)
- The Registration of Births and Deaths (Amendment) Act, 2023 (Link)
- The Cinematography (Amendment) Act, 2023 (Link)
- The Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill, 2023 (Link)
- IFF’s Statement on the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2023 (Link)
- IFF’s first read of the draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2023 (Link)
- Post summarising discourse on DPDPB, 2023 in the Parliament (Link)
This post was drafted by Saharsh Panjwani, Policy Intern at IFF, with the help of the Policy Team.