The Winter session of Parliament was held from December 07, 2022 to December 23, 2022. Parliament adjourned sine die four working days ahead of schedule, having sat for 13 working days. In the ongoing 17th Lok Sabha, this is the eighth consecutive session that has been cut short. The session was in itself a delayed one to begin with, because of ongoing assembly elections in many states. This Parliamentary session was disrupted frequently from the second week onwards, due to the Opposition’s objections on several issues, including alleged misuse of probe agencies by the government, the Bihar Hooch tragedy, the recent Indo-China conflict, etc. The Rajya Sabha lost a session runtime of 1 hour and 46 minutes owing to such disruptions. With respect to digital rights in particular, no significant developments took place in both Houses. In a belated but welcome move, the second-last day of the session saw the introduction of the Jan Vishwas (Amendment of Provisions) Act, 2022 which omits the contentious Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. (More on our work on this here)
In this post, we take a look at these disruptions, suspensions, bills passed/ withdrawn and analyse how the Parliament fared with respect to digital rights.
Why should you care?
Unlike the Monsoon Session held earlier this year, when the draft Data Protection Bill, 2021 was unexpectedly withdrawn, this session didn’t witness the introduction or withdrawal of any legislation directly or indirectly related to digital rights. While some responses from the Parliament helped us gain clarity on key digital rights issues, several questions posed by the MPs lapsed due to the early conclusion of the session. Ending a Session before the scheduled time means that the questions filed by public representatives meant to be answered by Ministers lapse, and other issues of public importance cannot be raised and discussed. This session, the productivity with respect to the questions answered by the Ministers was 59% in the Lok Sabha and 83% in the Rajya Sabha. Inter alia, some of the questions pertained to low internet access, cyber crimes in the country, and voter ID linkage with Aadhaar.
A look back
The Session, which was originally scheduled to have 17 sittings over 23 days from December 07 to December 29, 2022, was adjourned sine die four working days ahead of schedule. The Parliament thus sat for 13 days this session and has had only 56 sittings this year.
Analysis of the Winter session as per data as compiled by PRS Legislative Research, media reports and Parliamentary proceedings:
- Against an expected 16 Bills, only 7 new Bills were introduced in the session, and nine were passed. None of these nine had any significant impact on digital rights.
- Out of the 7 new Bills, the Jan Vishwas (Amendment of Provisions) Act, 2022 was introduced on the second-last working day of the Parliament. It aims to omit the contentious Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
- Both the houses of the Parliament witnessed high productivity, with Lok Sabha functioning for 97% of scheduled time as per Hon’ble Speaker Mr. Om Birla, as opposed to 88% which is the statistic as per PRS Legislative Research. The Rajya Sabha was functional for 94% of the time scheduled.
- This was comparatively higher than the previous Monsoon session’s 47% productivity in the Lok Sabha, and 42% in the Rajya Sabha.
- In the Lok Sabha, 11.2% of the time was spent in answering questions, 24.2% in legislation, 44.6% on non legislation business, and 15.8% of the time on financial business.
- In contrast, in the Rajya Sabha, maximum time, i.e., 34.0% of it was spent in legislative business. 15.1% of the time was invested in questions, 12.8% in financial business, and 27.4% in non-legislative business.
- All ministries in the Lower House received 259 starred questions in total in this session, with responses received on 239 and 20 left pending. On the other hand, out of 2,989 unstarred questions, 2,759 were answered while 230 were left pending.
- As per Chairman Dhankar’s closing remarks in the Upper House, 82 starred and 1,920 unstarred questions were answered in the House.
- The question hours lasted for 7.7 hours in the Lok Sabha and 10.8 hours in the Rajya Sabha.
- In the 17th Lok Sabha so far, 23% of Bills introduced have been referred to Committees. This is significantly lower than the last three Lok Sabhas: 60% in the 14th, 71% in the 15th, and 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.
- The Question Hour also witnessed several disruptions during the session, with only 31% of the starred questions (which require oral answers from Ministers) being answered orally in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
- In this session, 90 Private Members’ Bills were introduced.
Bills and Legislations
This month, we released the fourth edition of our legislative brief - Parliamentarians’ Guide to Digital Rights In India for the Winter Session 2022. We highlighted key issues that could be taken up in the session, including online free speech, cyber security, etc. One issue that significantly impacted free speech was Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The provision made it a punishable offense for any person to send offensive information using a computer or any other electronic device. It also made it punishable for a person to send information that they believed to be false.
Owing to excessive vagueness in the laws, the provision was often abused by enforcement authorities and ran the risk of a chilling effect on speech over the internet. In 2015, the section was deemed unconstitutional by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in Shreya Singhal v Union of India. However, despite repeated directions by the Supreme Court. The provision continues to be invoked across the country. In an earlier article we highlighted continued prosecutions under Section 66A, as recently as March 2020.
Through the Jan Vishwas (Amendment of Provisions) Act, 2022, the government aims to omit the provision from the Information Technology Act, 2000, in an attempt to finally cease its use in a way that encroaches digital rights.
Throughout the Winter Session, IFF also tracked the answers to parliamentary questions placed in both the Houses by various Ministers. A few key responses received are listed below:
- Blocking of news channels and other content platforms: The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (“MIB”) revealed that in 2022 alone, 5 TV channels were temporarily withdrawn, 6 were withdrawn, and 84 online news channels and 23 websites were blocked (link). The Ministry also reported that it blocked 104 YouTube news channels, 45 videos & 25 social media accounts, posts, apps, and sites of digital news publishers, while the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY”) blocked 30,417 URLs, including webpages, sites, posts or accounts on social media platforms etc., from 2013 till October 2022 (link 1 and link 2).
- Cyber Attacks: MeitY revealed that there has been a significant rise since 2017, with the occurrence of 12,67,564 cyber attacks in 2022 till November (link).
- Cyber Crimes: As per the Ministry of Home Affairs (“MHA”), over 16 lakh cyber crimes have been reported between January 2020 and December 2022, with 32,000 FIRs registered in the same period. The Ministry also reported that financial frauds amounting to more than ₹180 crore were saved (link). Furthermore, the MeitY stated that as per data from the National Crime Records Bureau (“NCRB”), 102,738, and 969 cases were registered under categories of cyber pornography or hosting, publishing obscene sexual material depicting children, and cyber crimes against children between 2019 and 2021(link). NCRB data, as relayed by the MHA, also informs that 14,007 cases were registered, and 73 people were convicted under fraud for cyber crimes in 2021 (link).
- AgriStack: The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare revealed that AgriStack work has begun and the core concept of India Digital Ecosystem for Agriculture (IDEA) has been finalized. The Ministry also explained that no agreements have been undertaken with private companies to establish the AgriStack, and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) have been signed with 11 companies. Under AgriStack, the farmers’ personal and financial data will be used in the absence of a stringent data protection law, thus making it difficult to establish liability for any data breaches. Despite multiple questions raised on AgriStack and IDEA, the Ministry failed to mention any mechanisms to address these concerns in its responses. It stated that the data is owned and accessible by Govt. only. The database is being built using publicly available data & no private companies are developing it (link). We have flagged concerns about the MoUs and its risks here.
This Winter session did not change anything for India’s bleak digital rights landscape. In the backdrop of the withdrawal of the Data Protection Bill, 2021, MeitY had revealed plans to create a ‘comprehensive legal framework’ for data protection. To this end, the draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022 (“DPDPB, 2022”), was notified on November 18, 2022. However, despite speculation, it was not tabled for discussion in this session. It is now predicted that the DPDPB, 2022 will be introduced in the next monsoon session. Along with this, a new legislation - the Digital India Bill, is likely to be released for public consultation by January, 2023.
We hope that when the government finally presents the new Bills, it conducts comprehensive public consultation and discussions on the Bills in Parliament. We also hope that in the upcoming sessions, parliamentary procedures are conducted in good faith, such that we are able to fathom the veracious account of digital rights in India.
- Parliamentarians’ Guide to Digital Rights In India for the Winter Session 2022 (link)