The ministry of electronics and IT (Meity) is in advanced stages of finalising the revised intermediary rules that would make social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp or Google more accountable.
As per the draft guidelines, the government has proposed companies need to comply with the government’s direction in providing information and assistance within 72 hours of request made with regard to origin of any content deemed unlawful and remove it. The notification of the guidelines will automatically end the debate around WhatsApp and other messaging platforms like Telegram regarding traceability of messages. The government has time and again reiterated that platforms have to provide origin of unlawful messages in order to prevent any untoward incident.
“Most of the work has been done on the rules and we will send it to the minister (Ravi Shankar Prasad) in a couple of weeks.
After he signs and the law ministry also clears, the rules will be notified,” said an official in Meity. Asked about the apprehensions regarding traceability as it impacts privacy of citizens, the official said the government doesn’t want access to content, so encryption of messages will continue. “We are not asking anybody to break encryption of messages. Rather we will provide the content to the platforms that is unlawful and the platforms have to tell us from where the content originated,” the official added.
The official further said the enforcement agencies and government only want metadata like phone numbers, etc, and a trail of the message which contains the unlawful content.
“As a platform, it’s their responsibility that unlawful content is not circulated. They have to bring down the unlawful content once it has been flagged down by the authorities concerned,” the official added.
The basic elements of the proposed changes are that social media platforms, apart from being required to give information and assistance to any government agency within 72 hours of request, will also need to trace the originator of the information on their respective platforms; the platforms will need to remove access to “unlawful acts” as ordered by an appropriate government agency; and the platforms need to deploy automated tools to remove and disable access to unlawful information or content.
Further, such rules will apply to social media platforms having more than 5 million users, and they need to have a permanent registered office in India and appoint a grievance officer in the country.
The government’s move to amend the guidelines came on the back of various incidents of lynching and violence, which it believes occurred due to rumours of fake news that spread from WhatsApp. The government subsequently asked WhatsApp to check the spread of false messages on its platform and the social media platform did take a number of steps like restricting the number of times a message could be forwarded and adding a forward label to forwarded messages. However, the social media platform expressed its inability to trace the origin of such messages as the messages are encrypted and it cannot read them.
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