These are among a host of changes the government announced on Thursday as part of sweeping revamp of IT rules governing social media companies and internet platforms, eroding the immunity or the “safety harbour” the big tech giants had enjoyed. The updated IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 mandate a series of responsibilities on the internet giants, asking them to be more accountable to “misuse and abuse”, and also put in place officers to address user grievances and government/court compliance orders.
“Social media platforms have empowered ordinary users, but they need accountability against its misuse and abuse. The new rules empower ordinary users of social media, embodying a mechanism for redressal and timely resolution of their grievance,” said telecom, IT and law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad while announcing the new rules that were notified by late evening.
The platforms will now need to take down any “unlawful” content on the request of the government, or the orders of a court, in a span of 36 hours. TOI had first reported on the 36-hour mandate in its edition dated February 19.
The government also sought to tame internet giants on the vexed issue of identifying the source of unlawful and inflammatory content, much against the defence of companies such as Facebook-owned instant messenger WhatsApp that their platform is “end-to-end encrypted” due to which they cannot identify the source of the message as doing so may violate a user’s privacy.
The new rules, which had been in the works for the past two years or so, come within days of an ugly spat between the government and Twitter over taking down accounts that were accused of carrying “inflammatory content” linked to the farmers’ protests.
The new rules state that where the spread of such information leads to serious offences, the companies — especially the “significant” intermediaries or those having a large user base — have no option but to share the identity on the original source that first spread the unlawful messaging.
“Significant social media intermediaries providing services primarily in the nature of messaging shall enable identification of the first originator of the information that is required only for the purposes of prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution or punishment of an offence related to 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 to the above or in relation with rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than five years,” the new rules state, though Prasad added that the companies will “not be required to disclose the contents” of any message or any other information.
The issue of identification, or traceability, has been a vexed one with WhatsApp holding firm time and again that it will not reveal the original source that triggered viral messaging. The government had a spat with the company a few years ago when “viral and fake messaging” on the platform was blamed for a series of lynching incidents across many states, even though the company did not pay heed to the request of the government to identify the source of the messages.
Facebook, which has the biggest clout on the social media universe through platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, put out a statement on the new rules, but steered clear from the issue of traceability.
“We have always been clear as a company that we welcome regulations that set guidelines for addressing today’s toughest challenges on the internet. Facebook is committed to people’s ability to freely and safely express themselves on our platforms. The details of rules like these matter and we will carefully study the new rules that were just published. We acknowledge and appreciate the recognition from the Minister (Prasad) on the positive contributions of social media to the country. Facebook is an ally for India and the agenda of user safety and security is a critical one for our platforms. We will continue to work to ensure that our platforms play an enabling role in fuelling the exciting digital transformation of India,” a spokesperson for the company said.
In subscriber-friendly rules, the government said users will have to be provided with a prior intimation and explanation when a significant social media intermediary removes content on its own. In such cases, users have to be provided an adequate and reasonable opportunity to dispute the action taken by the intermediary.
The new rules also state that users who voluntarily want to verify their accounts should be given an appropriate mechanism to do so and be accorded a visible mark of verification, something that is currently tightly controlled by platforms such as Twitter and Instagram.