The new digital rules announced by Union Ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javdekar on Thursday will not allow social media and OTT platforms and digital news organizations to get away with activities which defy the law of the land and go scot free.
Addressing the press conference, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Electronics and Information Technology Minister categorically stated, “Social media platforms are welcome to do business in India, but they need to follow the Constitution and laws of India. Social media platforms can certainly be used for asking questions and criticize. Social media platforms have empowered ordinary users, but they need accountability against its misuse and abuse.”
He also said that the newly introduced rules will empower the users of social media as they will pave way for a redressal mechanism and timely resolution of their grievances. The minister claimed that this new regulation- Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, aims to have tighter control over the powerful big tech firms.
Regarding this grievance redressal mechanism, the minister articulated the need for social media intermediaries to appoint a Grievance Officer to deal with the users’ complaints and share the officer’s name and contact details. He mentioned that the officer will have to register the grievance within 24 hours and action should be taken in 15 days. The government has put in place a three- tier system to regulate online content.
Additionally, the minister notified, “Intermediaries shall remove or disable access within 24 hours of receipt of complaints of content that exposes the private areas of individuals, show such individuals in full or partial nudity or in a sexual act or is in the nature of impersonation including morphed images etc.”
These social media intermediaries will now be divided into two categories- social media intermediary and significant social media intermediary. This differentiation is based on the number of individuals using a certain social media platform.
Making a comment on the rampant fake news across social media, Prasad said that there is a need to counter fake news and financial frauds in India. He also pointed out that several concerns have been raised over the years about the misuse and abuse of social media platforms.
As per guidelines, digital organizations will have to remove questionable content within 36 hours after a government or legal order and will have to lend a helping hand during investigations. The rules will also include a code of ethics which will ban all sorts of content trying to subvert the integrity and sovereignty of India and threatening India’s national security.
As far as whom to take legal action against is concerned, the minister said that it is crucial to act on the very originator of the objectionable content and that social media platforms will have to disclose the first originator of any such kind of content. The identity of the originator will have to be divulged in case of an offence related to the sovereignty and integrity of India, relations with foreign states, public order, or incitement of criminal offences like rape or child abuse. The intermediary shall not be required to disclose the contents of messages or any other information to the first originator.
Another important take away is that from now on, the users who wish to verify their accounts can do so voluntarily and they shall be provided with an appropriate mechanism to facilitate the same.
Talking about the digital news portals and OTT platforms, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javdekar said that people have been raising concerns about issues related to the type of content on both OTT platforms and digital media. And he emphasized that all media platforms should have the same justice system.
He mentioned that the rules will embody a self- regulatory system headed by a retired Supreme Court or High Court judge or an eminent person of this category, a code of ethics and a three- tier grievance mechanism for digital media portals and OTT platforms. He said that freedom of the press is the essence of democracy, but a code of ethics will be required to be followed by all and no rumor- mongering will be tolerated.
Javdekar mentioned, “For OTT, there should be self- classification of content- U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+ and A (Adult). There has to be a mechanism of parental lock and ensuring compliance that children don’t see that.”
The I&B Minister articulated that OTT and digital news media will have to disclose their details and added that the government will not ask for compulsory registration.
Wrapping up the press conference, Prasad unequivocally stated that, “Every social media platform is welcome in India, but there shouldn’t be double standards. If an attack takes place at Capitol Hill, social media supports police action but if there is an aggressive attack on the Red Fort and you call out police brutality, you’ve double standards. This is plainly not acceptable.” With this, he highlighted the hypocrisy of Twitter while acting against incitement in India and that in the USA.
Interestingly, Access Now which is a western advocacy group came out and spoke against these new guidelines. In its statement the group highlighted how it is concerned about the alarming new powers the Indian government has granted itself!
Intriguingly, if we look at the sources of funding for Access Now, we see that some of its major patrons are Twitter, Face book and Google which will undoubtedly be the most affected by the new digital guidelines. Therefore, when we see the advocacy group criticizing the rules, it is not easy to believe that it is doing so neutrally and without any ulterior motives.
The guidelines will come into play within the next three months and will surely be pulling back the long leash provided to the social media, digital news, and OTT platforms.