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New Regulations for Social Media Platforms

New Regulations for Social Media Platforms

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NEW DELHI, Feb 25: In a bid to regulate the social media platform in the face tussle with the central government over some objectionable contents regarding the on-going farmers’ agitation, the union government on Thursday announced new rules for social media platforms, OTT players & digital media with significant recommendations including asking social media companies to give out the originator of a message or tweet as the case may be.

The new rules make it mandatory for platforms such as WhatsApp to aid the government in identifying the “originator” of certain messages containing unlawful information.

The “Information Technology (Guidelines for intermediaries and digital media ethics code) Rules, 2021,” announced by the information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also mandated the social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to remove such content within 36 hours of being notified.

The social media platforms will also be required to provide information, including related to verification of identity, to lawfully authorised agencies within 72 hours.

Announcing the new rules at a media conference, Prasad said, “We have not framed any new law. We have framed these rules under the existing IT Act. We are trusting the platforms to follow these regulations,” he said and added, “The focus of this guideline is on self-regulation.”

The social media, he said, “is welcome to do business in India, they have done exceedingly well, they have done good business, they have empowered ordinary Indians. The government welcomes criticism and right to dissent….It is important that social media users running into crores should be given a platform for raising their grievance to raise complaints about abuse of social media.”

He noted that WhatsApp had about 53 crore users in India, YouTube about 48 crore users, Facebook about 41 crore users and about 1.75 crore people used Twitter.

The draft of the rules were actually released in 2018 but it has finally come into force close on the heels of the tussle between the government and Twitter over 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 the messages. The Facebook-owned firm has in the past denied 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.

The rules released on Thursday stated that intermediaries providing services primarily in the nature of messaging would “enable the identification of the first originator of the information on its computer resource” as may be required by an court order or an order passed under Section 69 of the IT Act by the Competent Authority.

“… such order shall not be passed in cases where less intrusive means are effective in identifying the originator,” it said, adding that the order would only be passed for the purposes of prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution or punishment of an offence related to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order, or of incitement to an offence relating in relation with rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than five years.

Prasad said, “… in complying with an order for identification of the first originator, no significant social media intermediary shall be required to disclose the contents of any electronic message, any other information related to the first originator, or any information related to its other users.”

He stressed that the social media intermediaries would have to reveal details of the first originator of a mischievous post. “They need to tell us, who started the mischief,” he stated.

Following the receipt of a lawful order, an intermediary, such as Twitter, YouTube or Facebook would expeditiously and not later than 72 hours, provide information under its control or possession, or any assistance to the lawfully authorised government agency.

The new rules also stated that an intermediary, on receiving a court order or on being notified by the appropriate government agency, would not “host, store or publish any information prohibited by any law in relation to the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India: the security of the State; friendly relations with foreign States; public order; decency or morality; in relation to contempt of court; defamation; incitement to an offence, or information which violates any law for the time being in force.”

The intermediary would be required to remove or disable access to such information, as early as possible, but in no case later than 36 hours from receipt of order, it added.

The intermediaries should remove or disable access to content “which is prima facie in the nature of non-consensual transmission of any material which exposes the private area of any person, shows such person in full or partial nudity or shows or depicts such person in any sexual act or conduct, or is in the nature of impersonation in an electronic form, including artificially morphed images, and such content is transmitted with the intent to harass, intimidate, threaten or abuse an individual,” within 24 hours from the receipt of a complaint made by an individual or any person on their behalf.

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 Officerwho shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act and Rules.
  • Nodal Contact Personfor 24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies.
  • Resident Grievance Officerwho shall perform the functions mentioned under Grievance Redressal Mechanism.

All these officers have to be residents of India.

“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.

The rules 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 are 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 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 demonstrable and visible mark of verification.”

The government has called for a grievance redressal system for OTT platforms and digital news media portals as well. The government is also asking OTT platforms and digital news media to self-regulate and wants a mechanism for addressing any grievances.

While films have a censor board, OTT platforms will require to self-classify their movies and content based on age. The content will have to be classified based on age appropriateness. The government wants the OTT players to classify films based on 13+, 16+ and those for adults and clarified it is not bringing any kind of censorship to these platforms.

There has to be a mechanism of parental lock and ensuring compliance with the same. Platforms like Netflix already have an option for a parental lock.

For publishers of news on digital media, they will be “required to observe Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India and the Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act thereby providing a level playing field between the offline (Print, TV) and digital media,” according to the government.

The government wants digital media to appoint a Grievance Redressal Officer based in India who shall be responsible for the redressal of grievances received by it. The officer shall take decision on every grievance received by it within 15 days.

There maybe one or more self-regulatory bodies of publishers. According to the rules, this body “shall be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court, a High Court or independent eminent person and have not more than six members.”

The body will have to register with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This body will oversee the adherence by the publisher to the Code of Ethics and address grievances that have not be been resolved by the publisher within 15 days.

(Manas Dasgupta)

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