IT rules to separate social media firms, other online platforms

Karishma Mehrotra
Internet rules, Intermediaries guidelines, IT act, IT act social media, facebook, twitter, whatsapp, google, India new internet rules, Internet policy in India, data protection

The IT Ministry had released a draft of the Information Technology Act’s Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules in December 2018. Those rules applied to all intermediaries, which would include everything from Amazon to Vodafone to Google. (File)

The revised guidelines ruling over Internet companies, and how liable they are for content posted by their users, will have specific rules for social media companies as compared to other Internet platforms, senior officials have told The Indian Express.

The rules, called Intermediaries Guidelines under the IT Act, are under process of revision in the wake of instances of violence and lynchings, affiliated with content posted on social media platforms.

They are likely to be notified by the end of this month, officials said.

The IT Ministry had released a draft of the Information Technology Act’s Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules in December 2018. Those rules applied to all intermediaries, which would include everything from Amazon to Vodafone to Google.

After their release, the draft rules had raised significant concerns about freedom of speech. For one, it required intermediaries to “deploy technology based automated tools...for proactively identifying and removing or disabling public access to unlawful information or content.”

In contrast to the word “proactive”, the Supreme Court ruled in the Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India case that companies are not liable for content on their platforms until they receive a government or court order.

The draft rules also required companies to respond to government requests for information, including about user accounts, in 72 hours. In particular, the rules have asked companies to enable a way to disclose to the government the “originator of information,” such as the original sender of a WhatsApp forward.

“Broadly, it is proposed to have a separate thing for intermediaries in general and social media in particular. The content of both of these will be nothing out of what was considered in the draft. We will not put anything that wasn’t in the consultation,” a senior government official said. “How does the originator of information, or all those concepts, matter to (for instance) a Wikipedia or an Amazon?”

Asked about the language of “proactively monitoring” of content, the official said the rules will be in accordance with the Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India verdict.

The IT Ministry is strongly considering using the definition for social media intermediaries proposed in the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill. The Bill defines a social media intermediary as “an intermediary who primarily or solely enables online interaction between two or more users and allows them to create, upload, share, disseminate, modify or access information using its services, but shall not include intermediaries which primarily,- (a) enable commercial or business oriented transactions; (b) provide access to the Internet; (c) in the nature of search-engines, on-line encyclopedias, e-mail services or online storage services.”

According to an official, once the PDP Bill is enacted and the Data Protection Authority is formed, the Authority could have the power to change these guidelines. Parliament’s Joint Select Committee examining the PDP Bill was meant to meet on January 14 but has postponed the meeting to January 16.

The IT Minister has reviewed the final amendments twice, and the Department of Legal Affairs will be consulted moving forward, an official said.

While the ministry had given Supreme Court a January 15 deadline to notify the guidelines, senior officials said they are likely to finalise guidelines before the next hearing SC hearing on January 29.

In the ongoing WhatsApp case, the Supreme Court had asked the IT Ministry about the status of the guidelines.