View from India: New rules for social media and OTT platforms

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The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 has been framed. This comes in the wake of growing concerns around lack of transparency, accountability and rights of users related to digital media

As per the rules notified on 25 February, social media platforms will need to follow the Constitution and laws of India while doing business in the country. Media reports indicate that social media platforms can become the channel for raising questions and criticism.

Social media is empowering in its nature with its outreach, but some of its consequences have been of a serious kind. The guidelines for social media will be administered by the Ministry of Electronics and IT; these include due diligence that must be followed by intermediaries including social media intermediaries. In case due diligence is not followed by the intermediary, safe harbour provisions will not apply to them.

There will be a grievance redressal mechanism, whose functions will be performed by a resident grievance officer. The new guidelines will ensure the online safety and dignity of users, specially women users, and intermediaries shall remove or disable access within 24 hours on receipt of complaints of content that exposes the private areas of individuals as well as morphed images.

To encourage innovation and enable growth of new social media intermediaries without subjecting smaller platforms to significant compliance requirement, the rules make a distinction between social media intermediaries and significant social media intermediaries. This distinction is based on the number of users on the social media platform. The government is empowered to notify the threshold of the user base that will distinguish between social media intermediaries and significant social media intermediaries. The rules require the significant social media intermediaries to follow certain additional due diligence including the appointment of a chief compliance officer, who shall be responsible for ensuring compliance. The package also includes a nodal contact person who can coordinate 24/7 with law-enforcement agencies, as well as a resident grievance officer who shall perform the functions mentioned under the grievance redressal mechanism. Both professionals should be a resident in India.

Over the years, social media platforms have gained tremendous popularity. In India alone there are 53 crore WhatsApp users, 44.8 crore YouTube users, 41 crore Facebook users, 21 crore Instagram users and 1.75 crore Twitter users. The new rules empower ordinary users of social media, embodying a mechanism for redressal and timely resolution of their grievance.

Coming to digital media and OTT (over the top) content, the thrust is on in-house and self-regulation mechanisms. The Code of Ethics for the Digital Media and OTT Platforms will be administered by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The overall architecture will come under the Information Technology Act, which governs digital platforms. To put things in perspective, issues related to digital content both on digital media and OTT platforms have been a cause for concern among film makers and political leaders, as well as householders and anxious parents. An appropriate institutional mechanism has been put in place by the government and the guidelines have taken into account the diverse tastes of viewers. Viewers could be viewing a film in a theatre, on television, or over the Internet.

The Modi government has ushered in the Digital India programme, which empowers people with technology. With the programme, smartphones proliferated as the internet began to be used extensively, providing fodder for social media platforms to expand their footprint. Social media changed many outlooks, as it gave people a voice. No surprise, then, that India has emerged as the world’s largest open internet society. The government has opened corridors for social media companies to operate in India, do business and earn profits. However, they will have to be accountable to the Constitution and laws of India.

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