New Social Media Rules
The Indian government recently notified new rules on how digital and social media platforms should operate in the country. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, tweaks protection available to social media and OTT companies and expands their compliance obligations. The Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, while announcing the rules, said it is a “soft-touch oversight mechanism”.
India is among the top three internet markets with close to 700 million users and its digital policymaking is being followed closely. If companies accede to government diktats in India, they can’t refuse to do elsewhere, according to the internet and legal experts. India’s ban of Chinese short video app TikTok had been cited in the US executive order seeking a similar halt on the Byte dance-owned company. In the past, India’s demand for traceability had also found resonance in countries such as the US, The UK, and Australia.
The new Intermediary Liability Rules mandate social media companies with over 5 million users in India to not just enable traceability of end-to-end encrypted messages, but also establish local offices with senior officials to deal with law enforcement and user grievances.
They also have to alter their interface to clearly distinguish verified users from others, apart from setting up automated tools for content filtration and informing users if their accounts have been blocked with explanations.
Social media companies with large user bases in the country will have to significantly alter their operating model to accommodate the new mandates from the Indian government under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, which came into force on February 25, as part of Section 79 of the Information Technology Act.
Messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Signal will likely have to dilute end-to-end encryption to trace the “first originator" of flagged messages.
Platforms like Facebook will also have to create a new interface for India, which will give users the option to verify users through authorized know-your-customer (KYC) processes and display a verification tag for those who seek this.
Large companies like WhatsApp are expected to resist breaking end-to-end encryption since it may set a global precedent. WhatsApp is evaluating “all options”, following the government’s mandate to trace the origin of contentious messages, and that the Facebook-owned app “will not bend” on the issue of user privacy.
Significant social media intermediaries will also have to publish monthly blocking and compliance reports, apart from hiring large teams in India to adhere to mandates such as taking down content in 36 hours from government agencies and 24 hours in the case of users. They may also have to alter their technology architecture to build automated tools to weed out content related to rape, child sexual abuse, or conduct.
Meanwhile, Internet Freedom Foundation has noted that these new rules are not based on any parliamentary approval and have been “arbitrarily made” using Section 79 of the IT Act. Gupta questioned the need for the government to give itself such powers when current laws — from defamation to contempt of court — already exist