The Centre on Thursday notified new, stricter guidelines for social media intermediaries that will make it mandatory for platforms such as WhatsApp to aid in identifying the ‘originator’ of ‘unlawful’ messages.
It will also require the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to take down such messages within a specific time-frame, set up grievance redressal mechanisms as well as assist government agencies in the investigation.
At a press conference, Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the basic essence of ‘The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021’ is a ‘soft-touch oversight’ mechanism to deal with issues such as the persistent spread of fake news, abuse of these platforms to share morphed images of women and contents related to revenge porn or to settle corporate rivalries.
Think-tanks and experts welcomed the new ‘well-intended’ rules, stating that these bring clarity on the responsibilities of intermediaries.
The rules also made a distinction between a significant social media intermediary and a regular social media intermediary. The government is yet to define the user size to determine who will constitute a significant social media intermediary, though the minister indicated players with more than 50 lakh users will be considered.
Social media companies and redressal
The government wants social media companies to have a mechanism to address complaints from users. It wants social media intermediaries to have the following:
Chief Compliance Officer who shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act and Rules.
Nodal Contact Person for 24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies.
Resident Grievance Officer shall perform the functions mentioned under Grievance Redressal Mechanism.
All these officers have to be residents of India.
The government says it is empowering the users of social media and other intermediaries. It wants companies to have a chief compliance officer for significant social media companies as well. The rules call for social media companies to publish a monthly compliance report as well.
“If there are complaints against the dignity of users, particularly woman that exploits their private parts of individuals or nudity or in sexual acts, impersonation, etc, you will be required to remove that within 24 hours,” Prasad said.
Track originator of a message
The rules also call for tracking of the ‘first originator’ of a message and apply to a significant social media intermediary. It also wants the significant social media intermediary to have a physical contact address in India published on its website or mobile app or both. For players like WhatsApp, which is end-to-end encrypted, this could mean they will be forced to break encryption in India in order to comply.
The government says while it is not interested in the content of the message, they wish to know who started the ‘mischief’. It wants social media platforms to disclose the first originator of the mischievous tweet or message as the case may be. This will be required in matters related to the security and sovereignty of India, public order, or with regard to rape or any other sexually explicit material.
The rules also say that users who wish to verify their accounts voluntarily shall be provided an appropriate mechanism to verify their accounts and provided with a demonstrable and visible mark of verification.
However, they added that in the current form, these guidelines could undermine the principles of open and accessible Internet and violate the right to privacy and free speech of users, particularly in the absence of robust data protection law. They noted that these could also lead to an erosion of the ‘safe harbour’ protection given to intermediaries under Section 79 of the IT Act.
“Social media is welcome to do business in India…they have got good business and have also empowered ordinary Indians… But it is very important that crores of social media users be given a proper forum for the resolution of their grievances in a time-bound manner against the abuse and misuse of social media,” Mr Prasad said.
The new rules, a draft of which were released in 2018, comes close on the heels of a tussle between the government and Twitter over the removal of certain content related to the ongoing farmers’ protests.
The government has also been at loggerheads with WhatsApp for over two years on the issue of tracing the originator of messages on the platform. The Facebook-owned firm has in the past refused to comply with the government’s request to trace the origin of a fake message, stating that the move will undermine the private nature of the platform.
As per the Minister, in India, WhatsApp had 53 crore users, YouTube 44.8 crore users, Facebook 41 crore users, Instagram 21 crore users and Twitter 1.75 crore users.