The Government says: Open to stricter social media rules
- In February 2021, the MeitY had notified rules and guidelines to hold social media and over-the-top (OTT) content platforms more accountable for the “misuse and abuse” of the content hosted on their platforms.
- The Union government notified the ‘The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021’ in February 2021 and provided a three-month compliance window.
- Minister for Electronics and Information Technology said that the government is open to introducing “stricter” guidelines for social media intermediaries if Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are able to build a consensus on it.
- The IT Rules came in after a huge demand by people with regard to the harassment and other unlawful activities that take place on social media platforms.
- Aim: The rules are aimed at substantially empowering the ordinary users of digital platforms by seeking redressal for their grievances and commanding accountability in case of infringement of their rights.
- The guidelines are framed to ensure social media remains a source of healthy information.
- Coverage: The New IT Rules pertain to OTT platforms, social media as well as digital news media organizations.
- However, digital news media organizations are already bound by the Press Council of India’s code of ethics.
Need to regulate social media
- Ability of digital/social Media to Reach, Scale, and size is huge compared to print and other media.
- The issue of content regulation has always been important in India because of the diverse nature of Indian society in terms of religion, economic status, caste, and language. Therefore, the effect that digital media has on society forms the basis of its regulation by the state.
- While electronic media in India is regulated by the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995, there was no law or body to oversee digital content. Some people are taking an undue advantage which leads to too much voice and noise in social media.
- Recently, India has seen a surge in the number of fake news items in circulation, especially on WhatsApp and Facebook.
- Absence of editorial control in digital/ social media leads to large-scale user-generated content which is unregulated.
- In 2018, fake information that was circulated on WhatsApp led to the lynching of five men in Maharashtra and there are many such instances.
- The threat of foreign influence and interference in India’s domestic affairs is more real than ever, particularly from India’s hostile neighbors like China and Pakistan.
- The Supreme Court had expressed the need to regulate social media to curb fake news, defamation, and trolling. It had also asked the Union government to come up with guidelines to prevent misuse of social media while protecting users’ privacy.
An Overview of the Guidelines
- Classification of Social Media Intermediaries: The guidelines call upon the categories of social media intermediaries:
- Regular Social Media Intermediaries (RSMIs)
- Significant Social Media Intermediaries (SSMIs)
- The SSMIs are the intermediaries having more than 5 million (or 50 lakh users.
- Appointment of Officers: The SSMIs are required to appoint the following officers, all of whom shall be residents of India:
- A Chief Compliance Officer
- A Nodal Contact Officer who should be available 24*7
- A Resident Grievance Officer.
- Grievance Redressal Mechanism: The guidelines ask the social media platforms to have a grievance redressal mechanism so that any content shared violates the public order or is not regulatory, a complaint regarding the same can be lodged to the Grievance Redressal Officer.
- The officer will be required to acknowledge the complaint within 24 hours and resolve it within 15 days.
- In the cases specifically related to crime against women, the obligation is to resolve the complaint within 24 hours.
- Monthly Reports: The SSMIs are also required to publish a monthly report mentioning the number of complaints received and the actions taken in response.
- Verification: Social media platforms are also required to have a voluntary verification mechanism like Twitter offers a blue-tick mechanism for verified users.
- Identifying Originators of Messages: The new rules make it mandatory for platforms such as WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram to aid in identifying “originators” of “unlawful” messages, while also requiring social media networks to take down such messages within a specific time frame.
- Non-compliance of these laws can result in the SSMIs in losing the ‘safe harbor’ protection offered under Section 79 of the IT Act.
- It grants protection against liability (civil as well as criminal) for content posted on the social media platform by third-party users.
- Violation of Fundamental Rights: Traceability of content is the very opposite of end-to-end encryption.
- Traceability of content originator and content infringes upon the users’ fundamental Rights to privacy.
- The rules place fetters upon the freedom of speech by fixing the Government as the ultimate adjudicator of objectionable speech online.
- These guidelines also undermine the principles of an open and accessible Internet.
- Rules Introduced Without Proper Legislation: There has been criticism about bringing in a plethora of new rules that ought to be normally triggered only via legislative action.
- These new rules are not based on any parliamentary approval and have been “arbitrarily made” using Section 79 of the IT Act.
- Also, there was not much public consultation.
- Concerns for the Intermediaries: These rules lead to an erosion of the ‘safe harbor’ protection given to intermediaries under Section 79 of the IT Act.
- Moreover, the rules at all levels, require more expenses and labor on the part of the platforms.
- Depriving of Fair Recourse: An intermediary is now supposed to take down content within 36 hours upon receiving orders from the Government.
- This deprives the intermediary of a fair recourse in the event that it disagrees with the Government’s order due to a strict timeline.
- Absence of Data Protection Law: In a country where the citizens still do not have a Data Protection Law to guard themselves against excesses committed by any party, such rules can do more harm than good.
- Putting Accountability in Place: The social media platforms do not consider themselves liable if any objectionable content is shared. However, they often edit, promote and block content on their platforms.
- Considering the fact that some platforms even have about 50 crore Indian users and have their reach even in hinterlands.
- The guidelines, seeing from a positive aspect, will help in holding these platforms accountable for ensuring the prevention of any crime.
- Data Protection Law: In order to secure the right of privacy of the citizens and for making the IT rules serve their ultimate purpose, there is a need to expedite the passing of the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019.
- Deliberating with Stakeholders: There are indeed many problems with the new rules, but the major issue was that these were introduced without much public consultation.
- The solution to ongoing criticism about these rules is to start afresh with the publication of a white paper.
- The guidelines, ultimately, are about the end-users of social media platforms, the growth of the latter depends upon the former.
- Ensuring the interests of the end-users must be the priority and rules and regulations must not be formed in any way that violates their basic rights.
- Moreover, there is a strong need to have law & order in place to curb the falsehoods of the information but also ensure that the privacy of the citizens is not compromised.