Our Constitution provides protection against laws imposing criminal liability for actions committed prior to the enactment of the law. Article 20 (1) under the Part III (Fundamental Rights), reads: 20. (1) No person shall be convicted of any offence except for violation of a law in force at the time of the commission of the act charged as an offence, nor be subjected to a penalty greater than that which might have been inflicted under the law in force at the time of the commission of the offence. Thus, the maximum penalty that can be imposed on an offender cannot exceed those specified by the laws at the time. In the context of the Bhopal Gas tragedy in 1984, the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was the only relevant law specifying criminal liability for such incidents. The CBI, acting on behalf of the victims, filed charges against the accused under section 304 of the IPC (See Note 1). Section 304 deals with punishment for culpable homicide and requires intention of causing death. By a judgment dated September 13, 1996, the Supreme Court held that there was no material to show that “any of the accused had a knowledge that by operating the plant on that fateful night whereat such dangerous and highly volatile substance like MIC was stored they had the knowledge that by this very act itself they were likely to cause death of any human being.” The Supreme Court thus directed that the charges be re-framed under section 304A of the IPC (See Note 2). Section 304A deals with causing death by negligence and prescribes a maximum punishment of two years along with a fine. Consequently, the criminal liability of the accused lay outlined by section 304A of the IPC and they were tried accordingly. Civil liability, on the other hand, was adjudged by the Courts and allocated to the victims by way of monetary compensation. Soon after the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the Government proposed and passed a series of laws regulating the environment, prescribing safeguards and specifying penalties. These laws, among other things, filled the legislative lacunae that existed at the time of the incident. Given the current provisions (See Note 3), a Bhopal like incident will be tried in the National Green Tribunal (once operationalized) and most likely, under the provisions of the the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The criminal liability provisions of the Act (See Note 4) prescribe a maximum penalty of five years along with a fine of one lakh rupees. Further, if an offence is committed by a company, every person directly in charge and responsible will be deemed guilty, unless he proves that the offence was committed without his knowledge or that he had exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of such an offence.

The civil liability will continue to be adjudged by the Courts and in proportion to the extent of damage unless specified separately by an Act of Parliament.

Notes 1) IPC, Section 304. Punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder Whoever commits culpable homicide not amounting to murder shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine, if the act by which the death is caused is done with the intention of causing death, or of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, Or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, or with fine, or with both, if the act is done with the knowledge that it is likely to cause death, but without any intention to cause death, or to cause such bodily injury as is likely to cause death. 2) IPC, Section 304A. Causing death by negligence Whoever causes the death of any person by doing any rash or negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both. 3) Major laws passed since 1984: 1986 - The Environment (Protection) Act authorized the central government to take measures to protect and improve environmental quality, set standards and inspect industrial units. It also laid down penalties for contravention of its provisions. 1991 - The Public Liability Insurance Act provided for public liability - insurance for the purpose of providing immediate relief to the persons affected by an accident while handling hazardous substances. 1997 - The National Environment Appellate Authority Act established to an appellate authority to hear appeals with respect to restriction of areas in which any industries, operations or processes are disallowed, subject to safeguards under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. 2009 - The National Green Tribunal Act, yet to be notified, provides for the establishment of a tribunal for expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and for giving relief and compensation for damages to persons and property. This Act also repeals the National Environment Appellate Authority Act, 1997. 4) Criminal liability provisions of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 Section 15. Penalty for contravention of the provisions of the Act (1) Whoever fails to comply with or contravenes any of the provisions of this Act, or the rules made or orders or directions issued thereunder, shall, in respect of each such failure or contravention, be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees, or with both, and in case the failure or contravention continues, with additional fine which may extend to five thousand rupees for every day during which such failure or contravention continues after the conviction for the first such failure or contravention. (2) If the failure or contravention referred to in sub-section (1) continues beyond a period of one year after the date of conviction, the offender shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years. Section 16. Offences by Companies (1) Where any offence under this Act has been committed by a company, every person who, at the time the offence was committed, was directly in charge of, and was responsible to, the company for the conduct of the business of the company, as well as the company, shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly: Provided that nothing contained in this sub-section shall render any such person liable to any punishment provided in this Act, if he proves that the offence was committed without his knowledge or that he exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of such offence.

On June 6, 2022, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology released the draft amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules, 2021) for public feedback.  The IT Rules were notified on February 25, 2021, under the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act).  The Ministry noted that there is a need to amend the Rules to keep up with the challenges and gaps emerging in an expanding digital ecosystem.  In this blog post, we give a brief background to the IT Rules, 2021 and explain the key proposed changes to the Rules.

Background to the IT Rules, 2021

The IT Act exempts intermediaries from liability for user-generated content on their platform provided they meet certain due diligence requirements.  Intermediaries are entities that store or transmit data on behalf of other persons and include telecom and internet service providers, online marketplaces, search engines, and social media sites.  IT Rules specify the due diligence requirements for the intermediaries.  These include: (i) informing users about rules and regulations, privacy policy, and terms and conditions for usage of its services, including types of content which are prohibited, (ii) expeditiously taking down content upon an order from the government or courts, (iii) providing a grievance redressal mechanism to resolve complaints from users about violation of Rules, and (iv) enabling identification of the first originator of the information on its platform under certain conditions.  It also specifies a framework for content regulation of online publishers of news and current affairs and curated audio-visual content.  For an analysis of the IT Rules 2021 please see here.

Key changes proposed to the IT Rules 2021

Key changes proposed by the draft amendments are as follows:

  • Obligations of intermediaries:  The 2021 Rules require the intermediary to “publish” rules and regulations, privacy policy and user agreement for access or usage of its services.   The Rules specify restrictions on the types of content that users are allowed to create, upload, or share.  The Rules require intermediaries to “inform” users about these restrictions.  Proposed amendments seek to expand the obligation on intermediaries to include: (i) “ensuring compliance” with rules and regulations, privacy policy, and user agreement, and (ii) "causing users to not" create, upload, or share prohibited content.
  • The proposed amendments also add that intermediaries should take all reasonable measures to ensure accessibility of their services to all users, with a reasonable expectation of due diligence, privacy, and transparency.   Further, intermediaries should respect the constitutional rights of all users.  The Ministry observed that such a change was necessary as several intermediaries have acted in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens.
  • Appeal mechanism against decisions of grievance officers:  The 2021 Rules require intermediaries to designate a grievance officer to address complaints regarding violations of the Rules.  The Ministry observed that there have been instances where these officers do not address the grievances satisfactorily or fairly.  A person aggrieved with the decision of the grievance officer needs to approach courts to seek redressal.  Hence, the draft amendments propose an alternative mechanism for such appeals.  A Grievance Appellate Committee will be formed by the central government to hear appeals against the decisions of grievance officers.  The Committee will consist of a chairperson and other members appointed by the central government through a notification.  The Committee is required to dispose of such appeals within 30 days from the date of receipt.  The concerned intermediary must comply with the order passed by the Committee.  Note that the proposed amendments do not restrict users from directly approaching courts.
  • Expeditious removal of prohibited content:  The 2021 Rules require intermediaries to acknowledge complaints regarding violation of Rules within 24 hours, and dispose of complaints within 15 days.  The proposed amendments add that the complaints concerning the removal of prohibited content must be addressed within 72 hours.  The Ministry observed that given the potential for virality of content over internet, a stricter timeline will help in removing prohibited content expeditiously.

Comments on the draft amendments are invited until July 6, 2022.