View from India: Social media and streaming firms face tighter rules to end fake news

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) last week ordered digital media and over the top (OTT) platforms to submit details of their regulatory compliance within 15 days.

The information will have to be furnished under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, which were announced in February. This is the first move in that direction since then.

Until now, social media intermediaries Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube have not been held legally accountable for the content that they transmit. They have been viewed as carriers of information. But we live in a digital world where information is transmitted at lightning speed and can also be misinterpreted and misused.

A concern for the negative widespread propaganda of hate speech and false news has urged the Indian government to chalk out regulatory measures. By doing so, social media platforms can enjoy the provisions of safe harbour. In short, the new rules aim to make the platforms more accountable and responsible for the content that they host.  

Television media organisations and online print will have to provide details on the title, the language in which it is published, the website URL, mobile apps and social media accounts.

Publishers of online curated content should display the classification rating specific to each content or programme. Users should be informed about the nature of the content through a content descriptor and if applicable, also offer advice on viewer description. The programme should begin with this information. The idea is to enable viewers to make an informed choice prior to watching the programme.

The OTT requirements are almost similar to those of the news publishers. The only additional requirement is that OTT players would have to include foreign entities and the country in which they are registered.

As per the new IT rules, OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime and social media firms operating in India will have to exercise additional due diligence. A resident grievance officer should be appointed, along with a chief compliance officer and nodal contact person. The purpose is to monitor the content on the platform as well as to respond or react to grievances. The compliance should include a three-tier redressal framework for addressing citizens’ concerns. This includes digital news publishers and self-regulatory bodies constituted by them.

Social media platforms with over 50 lakh (5 million) users in the country are categorised as large. These include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and homegrown Koo. They need to publish details about the grievance officer on their apps and websites.

Prakash Javadekar Union Minister for I&B has said that the rules governing social media and streaming companies have been tightened to put an end to fake news. The I&B Ministry indicated that the new rules were announced by the Centre to “establish a soft touch progressive institutional mechanism with a level playing field featuring a Code of Ethics and a three-tier grievance redressal framework for news publishers and OTT platforms on the digital media”.

The Code of Ethics bans content affecting the sovereignty and integrity of India. The new guidelines state that content involving nudity and morphed pictures of women will have to be removed in 24 hours of a complaint being raised.

In reaction to the digital rules, Facebook-owned company WhatsApp has raised objection as it was felt that it will interfere with the end-to-end encryption provided by the company to the users. In its response, the Indian government has stated that it respects the "Right of Privacy" and doesn't plan to violate the right. Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology also reiterated that “none of the measures proposed by India will impact the normal functioning of WhatsApp in any manner whatsoever and for the common users, there will be no impact.”  

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has issued a statement that the government claimed that it does not plan to violate the 'Right to Privacy' when WhatsApp is required to disclose the origin of a particular message.

Twitter has expressed its thoughts about the new rules. As reported in the media, Twitter is concerned about its employees in India and the threat to freedom of expression. The microblogging platform has appealed to the government to give it three months to comply with the new rules. The Delhi High Court has stated that Twitter has to comply with the guidelines. Twitter has been granted three weeks to go on record stating that it has appointed a resident grievance officer and complied with the IT Rules 2021.

Google, Facebook and WhatsApp have come forward and agreed to appoint statutory officers. The digital media news platforms would be required to observe norms of journalistic conduct of the Press Council of India (PCI).  

Global social media platforms have seen considerable traction in India and their user presence continues to surge. Government data indicates that WhatsApp has nearly 53 crore users, 44.8 crore YouTube users, 41 crore Facebook users, 21 crore Instagram users and 1.75 crore Twitter users in India. (One crore = ten million)

By way of explanation, the manner in which people have been operating social media platforms may not alter. However they should be careful about the content that they post. Should there be any compliance issues it should be resolved quickly by the grievance officer, who is a resident of India.

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