India to regulate social media, OTT & digital news platforms

Rahul M
·7-min read

The Indian government on Thursday released new rules to regulate social media companies, OTT streaming services, digital news outlets, among others in a bid to introduce a major change in legislation to assert more control over powerful Big Tech firms, and warned that ‘double standards of social media will not be acceptable’.

The government's warning went out to all social media platforms operating in the country.

Addressing a press conference, Union Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad detailed some of the strict oversight mechanism for social media companies, including a robust grievance mechanism besides measures for speedy redressal.

Concerns have been raised about rampant abuse of social media platforms, spread of fake news, said Ravi Shankar Prasad, adding that social media intermediaries have to appoint grievance officer, who shall registered complaints in 24 hours.

Content involving nudity, morphed pictures of women have to be removed in 24 hours. A grievance redressal official must be resident in India and monthly compliance reports have to be filed by social media platforms, said Prasad.

Social media platforms on being asked by court or government will be required to disclose the first originator of the mischief information, he added.

Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar Prakash Javadekar then spoke about the new rules concerning OTT platforms operating in the country.

Highlighting the misuse of social media in the country, Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the government wants social media platforms operating in the country to introduce a mechanism for better verification of users. Prasad said that the "significant social media" rules need to be implemented within three months.

"Social media platforms upon being asked either by a court order or a govt authority will be required to disclose the first originator of mischievous tweet or message as the case may be," Prasad said.

"Double standards of social media will not be acceptable," Ravi Shankar Prasad added during his speech.

Under the new Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, the government plans to mandate social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to erase contentious content as early as possible, but not later than 36 hours, after a government or legal order.

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These companies must also provide information and help with investigations within 72 hours of a request from authorities, said the draft rules, a copy of which News18.com has reviewed. Further, if a post depicts an individual in any sexual act or conduct, then companies must disable or remove such content within a day of receiving a complaint, the rules added.

The latest draft rules – which would be legally enforceable – have been released weeks after the government’s dispute with Twitter after the social media giant ignored orders to remove content over farmers’ protests. The new guidelines will supercede the 2011 rules, and government sources said that since the changes are only in the rules, and not the IT Act, Parliament intervention will not be required.

For players like WhatsApp, which are end-to-end encrypted, this could mean they will be forced to break encryption in India in order to comply.

Guidelines for OTT platforms soon

The draft proposal also requires companies to appoint a chief compliance officer, another executive for coordinating on law enforcement, and a “grievance redressal officer” within 3 months from the date of publication of these rules. All must be resident Indian citizens.

A copy of the draft rules, set to be released by IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, has been put out by the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF).

The oversight mechanism will include a committee with representatives from the ministries of Defence, External Affairs, Home, I&B, Law, IT and Women and Child Development. This committee will have “suo motu powers” to call hearings on complaints of violation of the Code of Ethics if it wants. The committee can warn, censuring, admonish or reprimand violators, seek an apology besides other actions.

The rules would also apply across other digital and online media, the draft proposal said. “A publisher shall take into consideration India’s multi-racial and multi-religious context and exercise due caution and discretion when featuring the activities, beliefs, practices, or views of any racial or religious group,” the draft rules said.

Streaming regulation

While the new rules for social media and other digital platforms will be governed by the IT Ministry, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry will be the governing body for rules concerning streaming platforms. Referring to films and other entertainment, including web-based serials, the draft rules called for a “classification rating” to describe content and advise discretion.

The rules would also force streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video, who objected to an independent appellate body for hearing streaming complaints, to submit to the authority of an appeals body headed by a retired high court or Supreme Court justice. If this body believes that the content violates the law, it would be empowered to send the content to a government-controlled committee for blocking orders to be issued.

Streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have faced complaints in India for obscenity. Police in Uttar Pradesh questioned an Amazon executive for nearly four hours on Tuesday over allegations that a political drama, “Tandav”, hurt religious sentiments and caused public anger.

The Indian Express reported that the rules also made a distinction between a significant social media intermediary and a regular social media intermediary. The government is yet to define the user size to determine who will constitute as a significant social media intermediary.

The government says it is empowering the users of social media and other intermediaries. It wants companies to have a chief compliance officer for significant social media companies as well. The rules call for social media companies to publish a monthly compliance report as well.

‘First originator’ of a message

The rules also call for tracking of the ‘first originator’ of a message. The government says while it is not interested in the content, they are interested to know who started the ‘mischief’. It wants social media platforms to disclose the first originator of the mischievous tweet or message as the case maybe.

This will be required in matters related to security and sovereignty of India, public order, or with regard to rape or any other sexually explicit material.

OTT content platforms

The government has called for a grievance redressal system for OTT platforms and digital portals as well. The government is also asking OTT platforms to self regulate and wants a mechanism for addressing any grievances.

While films have a censor board, OTT platforms will require to self-classify their movies and content based on age. There has to be a mechanism of parental lock and ensuring compliance with the same. Platforms like Netflix already have an option for parental lock.

News media

“Social media is welcome to do business in India. They have done exceedingly well. They have got a good number of users. They have also empowered Indians. We commend this,” Prasad stated.

The 30-page document, titled Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, guidelines define social media companies, suggest a three-tier mechanism for regulation of all online media, define the process for tracing the first originator, and confer blocking powers to an inter-ministerial committee.

With respect to regulation of news media, several concerns abound. The purview of the Information Technology Act, 2000 does not extend to news media, and so the guidelines do not have the legislative backing to regulate news media.

The draft contains a three-tier regulatory mechanism, according to a Hindustan Times report. The first tier of the regulatory mechanism is grievance redressal by the company itself; the second level involves a Press Council of India-like regulatory body that will be headed by a retired judge of a high court or the Supreme Court.

With inputs from News18, Indian Express, India Today, PTI and ANI.

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