For the last 24 hours, India’s Twitter have been in panic mode amid rumours that from Wednesday social media giants like Twitter and Facebook will be banned due to a new set of information technology rules.
In late February the companies were given three months to comply with the new directive, which comes into effect from 26 May, and had been warned that failure to do so could result in them losing their status as content “intermediaries” – and therefore the legal protections they have over what content is posted on their platforms.
So far none of Twitter, Facebook or Instagram have complied with the new rules, which led to speculation that they could be banned or suspended from operations. As of Wednesday afternoon the sites remained online, but the government has also yet to indicate whether the deadline will be extended.
The government maintains that the guidelines make the platforms more accountable and responsible for the content they host. For instance, the rules call for social media companies to establish a grievance redressal mechanism for resolving complaints from users.
The guidelines also call for the social media firms to appoint a chief compliance officer to ensure compliance with India’s laws, as well as a named contact person for 24x-hour coordination with law enforcement agencies and an in-house grievance officer.
Perhaps most controversially, it also requires social media companies to work with the authorities to enable “identification of the first originator” of all messages on their platforms. The government says this is to allow the prevention or prosecutions of offences relating to national security, public order and others.
The social media companies have raised concerns that this could violate users’ privacy.
Nikhil Pahwa, the founder of specialist digital news outlet Medianama and an expert on India’s technology policies, wrote in a thread on Tuesday that even if the deadline won’t get extended, the government is “unlike to enforce all the provisions and hold platforms to account unless it really needs to, because the platforms could then move court to challenge the guidelines”.
“The government wouldn’t want to give platforms reason to go to court because these rules are so majorly unconstitutional that they won’t want to risk embarrassment in courts. The rules are already being challenged on such grounds,” he tweeted.
Mr Pahwa also said there is zero chance of the Indian government blocking US-based platforms, especially when India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is currently in the US for talks with the Biden administration.
Meanwhile, The Hindu reported that a Facebook spokesperson on Tuesday said that they aim to “comply with the provisions of the IT rules and continue to discuss a few of the issues which need more engagement with the government”.
“Pursuant to the IT Rules, we are working to implement operational processes and improve efficiencies. Facebook remains committed to people’s ability to freely and safely express themselves on our platform,” the Facebook spokesperson said.
However, Facebook-owned WhatsApp has filed a case in the Delhi High Court against the rules, calling the new guidelines unconstitutional, a breach of people’s fundamental right to privacy and a contradiction of the concept of end-to-end encryption of messages.
Industry bodies in India have also asked the government to give more time for social media firms to comply with the guidelines.
The government has not openly discussed banning such platforms, but rumours on this point gained ground a few days ago when members of the elite unit of the Delhi Police visited the offices of Twitter to serve a notice, which was initially reported as a raid.
The police visit came after the platform had flagged some tweets by the ruling BJP party as containing “manipulated media”, and was described by opposition parties as a government attempt to intimidate Twitter.