India tightens grip on social and digital media

The new rules require social media companies with over 5 million users to set up grievance teams for redress in India.
The new rules require social media companies with over 5 million users to set up grievance teams for redress in India.PHOTO: ST FILE

BANGALORE - The Indian government has introduced sweeping new rules to regulate online content that could transform how the country uses the Internet.

On Feb 25, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad unveiled the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules as a "soft-touch oversight mechanism".

The rules affect a broad swathe of companies, from streaming platforms such as Netflix to messaging service WhatsApp, and social media platform Twitter to The Times of India, India's most circulated English-language newspaper.

Although they have been deliberated since 2018, the new rules came into force only weeks after Twitter did not fully comply with an Indian government order to block hundreds of accounts in February.

Even as Facebook and Twitter face scrutiny everywhere, from Europe, Australia and in the US, India's regulations - especially on tracing messages to the original sender, taking down unlawful content quicker and addressing complaints in a fixed time - could pose major challenges for the tech giants in their biggest market.

The new rules require social media companies, including messaging platforms, with over five million users to set up grievance teams for redress in India and publish monthly compliance reports on complaints addressed.

The companies have to take down content within 36 hours of receiving a government or court order, and provide any information government agencies seek within 72 hours.

Under court or government orders, messaging platforms will have to also reveal the original source of any message. The new rules do say that such information can only be sought for serious offences, and that platforms will not have to disclose the contents of messages.

The IT ministry had in fact made the same demands on WhatsApp in 2018 to trace senders of inflammatory messages that led to a gruesome killing or be "liable to be treated as abetters and thereafter face consequent legal action."

But Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which has almost 500 million Indian users, rejected the request then, explaining that "building traceability would undermine end-to-end encryption" and compromise user privacy safeguards.

India's new rules now leave the companies with no choice but to comply in three months, or risk penalties or criminal prosecution.

The tech companies have issued carefully-worded statements saying they were still studying the new regulations and working with the government on balancing user safety, transparency and online freedom.

"The agenda of user safety and security is a critical one for our platforms," a Facebook India spokesman said.

"We believe that regulation is beneficial when it safeguards citizen's fundamental rights and reinforces online freedom," said a Twitter spokesman.

The rules also include a new code of ethics for video-streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+. These platforms will now have to adopt an age-appropriate classification system and are also required to consider "India's multi-racial and multi-religious context and exercise due caution."

Streaming platforms and digital news publishers will have to now set up a three-level mechanism for redress of grievances - self-regulation by publishers, independent regulators, and a government oversight authority. Publishers must respond in 15 days to complaints about their content.

A senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Information has the authority to finally decide if any content should be blocked or modified. It is unclear how or if the rules will apply to individual bloggers and foreign news publishers like the BBC, CNN or even The Straits Times.

Digipub, the largest association of digital news publishers in the country, said in a letter to the government that the rules bypass legal procedure by allowing an executive body instead of the judiciary to block access to content.

The Times of India said the oversight authority set up with government officials could “both encourage strong-arming by the state and trolls mounting a deluge on a selected media target”.

The Hindu, another prominent newspaper, said: “The government would like to see itself as a watchdog of digital content in the larger public interest, but it comes across as a predator.”

On Friday, while hearing a petition about the alleged anti-Hindu content in an Amazon Prime series, a Supreme Court judge said the new rules “lacked teeth”.

The Indian government assured the court that it would draw up even more stringent laws.


A quick guide to India’s new rules

Big social media companies
- Establish teams for redress of grievances in India
- Take down content within 36 hours on government or court orders
- Respond in 72 hours to information requests from law enforcement

Messaging platforms 
- Establish teams for redress of grievances in India
- Help identify source of message on government or court orders
- Respond in 72 hours to information requests from law enforcement

Video-streaming platforms
- Comply with new certification system
- Establish three-tier mechanism for redress of grievances
- Respond to complaints within 15 days

Digital news organisations
- Establish three-tier mechanism for redress of grievances
- Respond to complaints within 15 days
- Adhere to Code of Ethics