India has proposed a new set of IT rules to rein in social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, amid concern that big technology companies are exploiting gaps in the country’s regulations.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology published a draft amendment on Monday to the Information Technology Rules 2021 that proposes setting up a committee that can veto grievance redressal decisions, including barring or removing any user or user account on social media platforms.
In a news statement, it said the revisions would ensure “constitutional rights of Indian citizens are not contravened by any Big Tech platform by ensuring new accountability standards for SSMIs (Significant Social Media Intermediaries)”.
The ministry also said the amendments will ensure “actual enforcement of requirements in IT rules 2021 in letter and spirit.”
The new guidelines, it said, were crafted to ensure an “Open, Safe & Trusted and Accountable Internet for all Indian Internet Users and Digital Nagriks (citizens).”
Taming Big Tech
While India’s current IT policies have increased intermediaries’ accountability to their users, especially on big tech platforms, as India’s digital eco-system and Internet users grow, so do their concerns, as well as “infirmities and gaps” in the rule in regard to Big Tech, the ministry said.
It alleges that “a number of intermediaries have acted in violation of constitutional rights of Indian citizens and keeping in mind that the government is the guarantor of such rights of all our citizens.”
The ministry, however, did not clarify what these “infirmities and gaps” are.
“Clearly, the new guidelines would make Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and others more accountable to court orders to remove material and identify original posters,” said Salman Waris, a partner with TechLegis Advocates & Solicitors, a law firm specialising in regulatory aspects of Technology, Media, Telecom.
In February 2021, New Delhi announced steps to make Facebook, WhatsApp and others more legally accountable.
They were asked to remove “illegal” content, while messaging service providers were told they would be compelled to identify original posters of particular messages, which might include compromising end-to-end encryption provided to users.
New rules for social media businesses were introduced on May 26, 2021 that require big social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to identify the ‘first originator’ of information that “jeopardises India’s sovereignty, national security, or public order.”
“Monday’s proposed rules are also significant in light of reports of accounts, including those of celebrities, being blocked by social media platforms like Twitter for allegedly violating community norms,” Waris said.
Open to Public Feedback
The new rules, though, are not finalised yet as stakeholders have still to be consulted. The ministry said it is open to some modifications after public consultation and suggestions from stakeholders over the next 30 days.
And next week, it plans to convene a formal meeting for public feedback.
Rajeev Chandrasekhary, the Minister of State for Electronics and IT, said the proposed guidelines would have no impact on “early stage or growth stage Indian firms or startups.”
• Indrajit Basu