The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on Thursday issued a set of sweeping rules to regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content that will virtually bring these platforms, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.
The “Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021”, was notified after a press conference by Minister of Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad and Minister of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar. The Union ministers said these policies were meant to tackle the “rampant abuse of social media platforms” and spreading of fake news.
They said rules would establish a “soft touch progressive institutional mechanism with level-playing field”, which will include a code of ethics and a mechanism to report inappropriate content and ask for its removal.
‘Originator of mischief’
One of the most significant of these changes is that social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter Signal and Facebook will now have to give details about the origin of a tweet or a message on being asked by either a court or a government authority, Prasad said. This should only be in relation to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, public order, relations with foreign states, or rape, sexually explicit content.
“Who began the mischief, the social media platforms will be required to disclose the first originator of the message or tweet,” Prasad said. “If the message originated from outside of India, then give details about who first shared it in the country.”
The new rule could mean that messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Signal would have to break the end-to-end encryption in India in order to comply.
Additionally, the government will constitute an inter-departmental committee, called the Committee, consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Defence and the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team.
This committee will have “suo motu powers” to call hearings on complaints of violation of the code of ethics if it wants. The committee can warn, censure, admonish or reprimand violators and seek an apology besides other actions.
The government will also designate an officer of the rank of a joint secretary or above as the “Authorised Officer” who can direct blocking of content, according to the new guidelines.
The regulation also requires social media companies to appoint a chief compliance officer, another executive for coordinating on law enforcement and a “grievance redressal officer”. All must be resident Indian citizens.
“Social media platforms have to set up a grievance redressal mechanism,” Prasad said. “This involves shooting of complaint in 24 hours, redressal within 15 days. They also have to submit a monthly compliance report to the government.”
Additionally, social media companies are also obligated to assist in investigations or other cyber security-related incidents within 72 hours of a request, the minister added. Further, if a post depicts an individual in any sexual act or conduct, then companies must disable or remove such content within a day of receiving a complaint, Prasad said.
The companies must also have provision for voluntary verification of users. “If you seek to disable access to the content of any social media user, you are required to give him reasons and also hear him,” the Union minister said.
The Bharatiya Janata Party leader said that the new mechanism will “empower the ordinary social media users”. “The government welcomes criticism and right to dissent, and social media has been used to ask questions too,” he said. “But it is very important that the users of social media may be given a forum for the resolution of their grievances against the misuse and abuse of social media.”
The government has called for a grievance redressal system for OTT platforms and digital portals as well. “Every freedom has to be a responsible freedom,” Union minister Prakash Javadekar said, while making the announcements.
Under the rules, the OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon will have to set up 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, Javadekar said. Detailed classification of content on the basis of age, sex, violence and nudity will also have to be listed.
The rules would force streaming services to submit to the authority of an appeals body headed by a retired High Court or Supreme Court justice, according to NDTV. If this body believes that the content violates the law, it would be empowered to send the content to a government-controlled committee for blocking orders to be issued.
Digital news platforms
The new rules will also regulate news media platforms through proxy.
The Rules, 2021 have defined a “Code Of Ethics And Procedure And Safeguards In Relation To Digital/Online Media” which shall apply on “applicable entities”.
These “applicable entities” include, “publishers of news and current affairs content”; and “intermediaries which primarily enable the transmission of news and current affairs content”; and “publishers of online curated content”; and, “intermediaries which primarily enable the transmission of online curated content.”
This basically would mean any and every news website in the country.
Further, the rules lay down a three-tier structure to ensure the new code of conduct is followed. This includes, self-regulation, “self-regulation by the self-regulating bodies” and an “oversight mechanism by the central government”.
The Internet Freedom Foundation pointed out, this could likely mean “government oversight and more censorship”.