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Email policy makes no reference to its application on ministers, MPs, top judges

By Venkatesh Nayak*
The Government of India has notified its new Email Policy. A former ideologue of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), KN Govindacharya had a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) suit against the Government about the use of foreign-based internet services for official purposes. He had objected to the use of social media outlets and web-based email service providers for official purposes (click HERE to read). Although the PIL itself has not been disposed of, the Government appears to have acted on the plaint. The new Email Policy was notified on February 19, 2015. It is applicable currently to public servants under the Government of India, and those states and Union Territories that use the email services of the Government of India.
Under the new Email Policy civil servants working in India are ordinarily required to use the email service provided by the Government’s National Informatics Centre (NIC). The only exceptions are made for those agencies which have established their own secure email service facility and Indian Embassies and High Commissions abroad who may use other email services when the Internet access to NIC’s server is down for any reason.

Some elements of the new Email Policy are difficult to understand in the absence of detailed guidelines

For example, paragraph 5.6 of the policy requires that all emails be kept confidential by the users. In the absence of any reference to making emails accessible to a request or under the provisions of the Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act), Public Information Officers (PIOs) could be confused about which instruction to follow. Of course, a mere policy cannot override a statute, but in the absence of detailed guidelines, PIOs may err in favour of secrecy resulting in more litigation before the Central Information Commission. Section 2(f) of the RTI Act, includes emails within the definition of the term- “information”.
Another lacuna is that the policy applies only to officials. It makes no reference to the application of the new policy to Ministers, Members of Parliament or Judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts who may be using emails for official work.
Then, State Governments have the discretion to adopt the new Email Policy or continue to use their own services or those provided by web email service providers such as Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo. So where an official of the Government of India sends an official email to an official of the State Government who uses private web-based email services, how will the security of such emails be protected is an open question. It is common practice amongst officers of State Governments to use private email services despite having NIC mail ids.
Further, many government officials confide in private about the poor quality of the services provided by the NIC. Whether this is true or not remains to be assessed on the basis of empirical studies. However, that is not too difficult a problem to surmount as NIC could rise to the challenges using its vast experience and expertise in providing IT-based services.
The success of the new Email Policy in ensuring efficient, smooth and secure communication within Government agencies will be tested in the coming years. The compliance guidelines place all responsibility for ensuring adherence with the policy on the governmental organisations. In the absence of any sanctions against government officials who may continue to use private web-based mail services, ascertaining compliance with the policy may be a major challenge. Perhaps RTI activists could keep a watchful eye on the state of compliance with the policy in various ministries and departments.

*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Delhi. To download the Email Policy, click HERE

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