The new IT Rules sparked controversy over concerns of user privacy – which the Supreme Court has declared a fundamental right in India – as well as over censorship of news media.

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news Social media Thursday, May 27, 2021 - 17:10

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has given a 15-day time limit to digital media publishers, including OTT and online news platforms, to submit details about their compliance with the guidelines on digital media ethics that came out in February 2021. The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 aim to bring social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, OTT platforms like Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video, etc. and digital news organisations under a three-tier regulatory framework.

The rules sparked controversy over user privacy concerns – given that the Supreme Court has declared the right to privacy a fundamental one in India – as well as over censorship of news media. The Union government had earlier given social media giants three months till May 25 to comply with the rules, which they failed to do. Earlier this week, it had led to questions about whether platforms like Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram) will be banned in India.

The new rules require media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to follow additional due diligence, including the appointment of a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person and resident grievance officer. The new guidelines also state that content involving nudity and morphed pictures of women will have to be removed within 24 hours of a complaint being raised. Non-compliance with the rules would result in these social media companies losing their intermediary status that gives them exemptions from liabilities for any third-party information and data hosted by them.

On February 25, the government had announced stricter norms for social media firms, requiring them to remove any content flagged by authorities within 36 hours and setting up a robust complaint redressal mechanism with an officer being based in the country. Major social media platforms will also have to publish a monthly compliance report disclosing details of complaints received and action taken, along with details of contents removed proactively. They will also be required to have a physical contact address in India published on their website or mobile app, or both.

Read: Explained: Union govt’s new IT rules for social media, OTT platforms & digital news

However, on May 26, WhatsApp filed a case in the Delhi High Court asking it to declare the new IT rules as violative of privacy rights. The rules require social media companies to identify “first originator of information” when required to do so by authorities. WhatsApp argued that this is not possible because it would have to break end-to-end encryption to comply with the rules, which it views as violation of privacy.

On May 27, Twitter raised some concerns about the new IT rules too. Although Twitter said it will “strive to comply with applicable law in India” to keep its service available, the company added that it was concerned by recent events regarding its employees in India, the intimidation tactics by the police and the potential threat to freedom of expression of people. Recently, the special cell of the Delhi police had paid a visit to Twitter India offices to give a notice in the Congress toolkit case. This happened after tweets by BJP leaders, including spokesperson Sambit Patra, were given the ‘manipulated media’ tag. Many on Twitter viewed the police’s visit to Twitters offices in Delhi and Gurugram as an intimidation tactic.

The Indian government, meanwhile, has staunchly defended its new digital rules, saying the requirement of messaging platforms such as WhatsApp to disclose origin of flagged messages does not violate privacy. IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the new norms will not impact normal functioning of the popular free-messaging platform. The requirement of tracing origin of messages under the new rules is for prevention and investigation of “very serious offences” related to sovereignty and integrity of India and security of the state, a statement from his ministry said.

Separately, the ministry asked social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp to report their status on compliance with the new rules, which kicked in from Wednesday.

According to official data cited by the government, India has 53 crore WhatsApp users, 44.8 crore YouTube users, 41 crore Facebook subscribers, 21 crore Instagram clients, and 1.75 crore account holders on Twitter.

Read: New IT rules: Will Facebook and Twitter get banned? What experts say as deadline ends

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