In the last few days, the tension between New Delhi and global social media giants has heightened as India, the world’s largest democratic country, tightens its grip on social media companies with new IT rules that allow the government stricter scrutiny of online content.
India gave social media giants three months to comply with the new rules that ended on May 26. India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) sent a letter to all social media platforms on Thursday, one day after the deadline, seeking their current compliance status. Barring a few Indian platforms, none of the U.S.-based companies have complied with the new guidelines. While Google has said it’s working on complying with the regulations, Twitter has sought a three-month extension to fully comply with the rules.
In February this year, Meity notified new guidelines under IT Rules 2021. The Indian government and social media giants, specifically Twitter and Facebook, have been at odds for several years. On multiple occasions, it has asked Twitter to take down posts and sent notices to WhatsApp to identify the source of specific messages. It’s alleged that a few messages over WhatsApp and Twitter were used to organize protests against government rules such as the farmer’s law and India’s citizenship amendment act.
The new IT rules direct social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and others to set up a grievance redressal mechanism and appoint a chief compliance officer who should be available round the clock to address government concerns, including post takedowns within 72 hours of the request.
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India has asked social networking companies to publish monthly reports of the complaints received and the status of the redressal by the platform.
The new policy will also force messaging apps like WhatsApp to change their end-to-end encryption as the government, in its attempt to curb fake news, wants to identify who sent the message first.
The Facebook-owned messaging giant has taken the government to court as it believes the new IT rules violate the right to privacy and are unconstitutional. It is also seeking to get rid of criminal liability, something that the IT rules mention for not complying with the government’s request to take down certain posts or not being able to identify the first originator of a message.
Following WhatsApp’s footsteps, microblogging major Twitter has also challenged the IT rules in an Indian court, saying putting the onus of the content on the compliance officer and that they will be held criminally liable is inconsistent with democratic principles.
“Right now, we are concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a press release.
In response to this, the Indian government said, “Twitter has a large user base in India and earns significant revenue from its Indian operations but is also the most reluctant to appoint an India-based grievance redressal officer and mechanism, chief compliance officer, and nodal officer to whom its users can complain when they are subjected to offensive tweets.”
In contrast to WhatsApp and Twitter, Google has said it will soon comply with the IT rules. “We always respect local laws in every country we operate in and we work constructively with them. We have clear transparency reports, and when we comply with government requests, we highlight that in our transparency reports,” said Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet Inc.
Aprameya Radhakrishna, the co-founder of local language microblogging app Koo, who came into the limelight after the Indian government’s tiff with Twitter, said the government is right in introducing the new rules for social media as the sector is practically ungoverned and there should be some checks and balances, similar to what exist in the real world.
“I think we should do whatever it takes to make the internet and social media a safer place. People can mask themselves and get away with whatever they say. This rule impacts only 1% of netizens who go rogue on the internet,” Radhakrishna told KrASIA.