Several global social media giants are coming together to fight the new rules proposed by the Government of India. The set of new rules require them to actively regulate the content in one of the world’s biggest consumer internet and technology market, according to sources of Reuters.
On the 25th of December 2018, the Information Technology ministry proposed new rules that would compel tech giants like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and others to remove unlawful content including those which affects the sovereignty and integrity of the country within 24 hours of reporting.
However, the proposal is open for public comment till 31st of January this year and is set to be adopted as law with or without changes. India’s general election is ahead due by May and activists could misuse social media to spread fake news and mislead voters. So, the government has taken a bold move to curb fake news distribution in the country.
While some are happy about the law, various industry executives and civil right activist speculate that the rules can be used by the government to keep an eye on users, increase surveillance and crack down on dissent. The rules smack of censorship and social media firms have been battling around the imposition.
Several Indian and U.S lobby groups representing Facebook and other messaging companies have sought legal opinions from various law firms on the impact of the new rules. The firms have been actively working to draft objections to be filed with the IT ministry.
“The companies can’t take this lying down. We are all concerned, it’s fundamental to how these platforms are governed,” said an executive at a global social media company.
More than 500 million users in India use the Internet and Facebook has 300 million users in the country while WhatsApp has more than 200 million users. More than 10 million Indians use Twitter. The new rules can put the privacy of these users at risk and demand increased capital expenditure to maintain the onerous 24 hours monitoring of digital content.
Mozilla Corporation termed the proposal as “blunt and disproportionate” solution to the problem of harmful content and fake news and one which could lead to over-censorship and “chill free expression”.
Information Technology ministry claims that the proposal is aimed at making social media safer.
“This is not an effort to curb freedom of speech, or (impose) censorship,” Gopalakrishnan S., a joint secretary at India’s IT ministry said on Saturday when the ministry ran a #SaferSocialMedia campaign on Twitter.
Twitter continues its conversation with the IT Ministry and civil society about the proposed rules.
“This will be like a sword hanging on technology companies,” said Nikhil Narendran, a partner specializing in technology law at Indian law firm Trilegal.
Other countries have also come up with similar regulations. Australian parliament passed a bill that allows police to get access to private firm’s encrypted data. Germany’s law requires content companies to take down illegal hate speeches within 24 hours violating which can result in hefty fines. Vietnam has also asked companies to store data domestically by opening data centres and offices within the borders.
The new rules, called “intermediary guidelines”, also propose requiring companies with more than 5 million users in India to have a local office and a nodal officer for “24×7 coordination with law enforcement”. When asked by a government agency or through a court order, companies should within 24 hours “remove or disable access” to “unlawful” content, they stipulate.
The rules also mandate companies to reveal the origin of a message when asked, which if enforced would deal a blow to WhatsApp which boasts of end-to-end encryption to protect user privacy. WhatsApp has battled criticism after fake messages about child kidnap gangs on its platform sparked mob lynchings in India last year.