GitHub and pals call on Indian government to junk proposed platform liability rules

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GitHub has thrown its support behind a plea to India’s government to change proposed rules that would land platform operators with onerous new responsibilities if they have more than five million users in the country.

The code repo and development platform signed up to the letter to Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology this week along with Cloudflare and Mozilla, ahead of the presentation of the new rules to India’s Supreme Court later this month.

The changes to the country’s intermediary liability regime would, amongst other things, oblige platforms with more than five million users to set up a local office with a senior exec to take responsibility for legal issues. They will also oblige companies to proactively monitor for “all unlawful content”, implement and impose a 24 hour deadline for removing offending content, and to share user data with the authorities within 72 hours.

Every country has problems with fake news these days, but India appears to be one of the most afflicted, according to a study by GitHub’s own parent, Microsoft. The picture is further muddied by the government’s approach to Internet censorship. The country temporarily blocked GitHub as part of a previous internet crackdown. The government last year cut off all internet access for Kashmir, after revoking the restive region’s statehood.

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Unsurprisingly, this week’s letter claimed the proposals could “place a tremendous, and in many cases fatal, burden on many online intermediaries – especially new organizations and companies. A new community or a startup would be significantly challenged by the need to build expensive filtering infrastructure and hire an army of lawyers.”

More technically, it says, “The extremely broad definition of the term ‘intermediary’ would likely lead to many unintended parties being impacted by these amendments.” 

They could, the letter writers argue, encompass “browsers, operating systems, online repositories of knowledge, software development platforms, and services even further down the internet stack such as DNS, cybersecurity and caching services among others”. And the requirement to “proactively monitor platforms” was simply technically infeasible, it says.

The upshot, it claimed, would be to “tilt the playing field in favour of large players, substantially increase surveillance, and prompt a fragmentation of the internet in India that would harm users while failing to empower Indians.”

Of course, GitHub itself is a large player – or at least its parent, Microsoft is. 

And India also has a thriving software industry – according to GitHub’s State of the Octoverse, the country ranked third for open source contributions on the platform. It’s unlikely GitHub and Microsoft would really turn their back on that.

So whether the obligations would actually be fatal to GitHub’s operations in the country or be enough to force it out altogether may be open to debate. But the issue certainly does illustrate how life is getting more complicated for the global software industry in 2020.

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