Global social media and technology giants have geared up to fight the new sweeping rules that have been proposed by the Indian government. These rules will require the companies to actively regulate content in one of the world’s biggest Internet markets.
The rules have been proposed by the Information Technology ministry on Christmas Eve, and these will compel platforms such as Facebook, its messaging service WhatsApp, and Twitter to remove unlawful content, and this can include anything which would/has affected the “sovereignty and integrity of India”. This, after identification, has to be done within 24 hours. The proposal caught many holidaying industry executives off guard and is open for public comment only until January 31. After this, all of them will adopt the law, with or without changes.
This move comes ahead of India’s national election which is due by May and in between all the rising worries since activists might misuse social media, especially the WhatsApp messaging service, to spread fake news and sway voters unfairly.
Industry executives and civil rights activists said that the rules smack censorship and might be used by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to increase the surveillance and crack down on dissent. Social media firms have been battling efforts by governments around the world, very strongly and held them responsible for what the users posted on their platforms.
US and India lobby groups that represent Facebook and other companies have been seeking legal opinions from law firms on the impact of the federal proposal, and have also started working on drafting objections which will be filed with the IT ministry.
An executive at a global social media company said- “The companies can’t take this lying down. We are all concerned, it is fundamental to see how these platforms are governed.“
An estimated half a billion people in India have access to the Internet and Facebook has about 300 million users in India and WhatsApp has more than 200 million users. Tens of millions of Indians use Twitter.
The sources said that the new rules might put the privacy of users at risk and might also raise costs by requiring vigilant round-the-clock monitoring of online content.
Internet firm Mozilla Corp, during the proposal the last week said it was a “blunt and disproportionate” solution to the problem and one this could lead to over-censorship and “chill free expression”.
The IT ministry said that the proposal aimed at only making social media safer. Gopalakrishnan S., a joint secretary at India’s IT ministry, on Saturday, said that when the ministry ran a #SaferSocialMedia campaign on Twitter, it wasn’t an effort to curb freedom of speech, or (impose) censorship.
Facebook and WhatsApp didn’t comment on this. A Twitter spokesperson told that the company continues to engage with the IT Ministry and civil society on these rules.
Nikhil Narendran, a partner specializing in technology law at Indian law firm Trilegal said- “This will be like a sword hanging on technology companies.“
These regulations are not just for India. Vietnam has also asked the tech companies to open local offices and store data domestically, and Australia’s parliament has passed a bill which will force companies to give police access to their encrypted data. Germany also requires social media companies to remove illegal hate speech within 24 hours of them being reported or face fines.
This proposal might strain relations between India and the global technology firms since they have been at odds since last year because of the federal proposals that required them to store user data locally so as to better assist legal investigations.
The new rules have been known as “intermediary guidelines”, and also require 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”.
These rules make it mandatory for companies to reveal the origin of a message since fake messages circulated on WhatsApp has created mob lynchings and havoc.
A senior government official, referring to WhatsApp, said- “You have created a monster, you should have the ability to control the monster. We remain flexible in principle (to suggestions), but we definitely want them to be more accountable, especially the big companies.“