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Facebook And Twitter May Face A Ban In India If Failed To Comply With New Intermediary Guidelines

Wednesday, 26 May 2021, 05:05 Hrs

According to multiple news reports, social media behemoths like Facebook and Twitter may risk a ban in India if they do not comply with the new intermediary criteria for social media platforms.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had given a three-month deadline to the organizations to accept the guidelines by May 25, but so far, barring Koo – the Indian version of Twitter, none have accepted them.

The rules will be effective from May 26, despite these companies seeking a total six-month delay in their implementation.

If any of these social media platforms fail to accept these guidelines, they risk losing status as social media platforms and protections as intermediaries. The government can also take action against them as per the law of the land for not following the rules, a government official said.

However, this does not necessarily mean that users in India will not be able to access these social media platforms from tomorrow. As digital rights activist and MediaNama founder Nikhil Pahwa explained, It is unlikely that the government would enforce all the provisions and hold social media platforms accountable unless it really needs to because the platforms could then move the court to challenge the guidelines.

He explained, the government would not want to give Facebook and Twitter a reason to go to court because these rules are “unconstitutional”, and the Centre would not want to risk being embarrassed in courts.

He added: “The rules are already being challenged on such grounds.”

Besides, the Centre was expected to issue a set of FAQs to explain how these guidelines are being implemented. However, those have not been released yet and there is a possibility of the deadline being extended to give the Ministry of Electronics ad IT more time to figure out the nuances.

Moreover, Pahwa said, “there is zero chance of the government blocking United States-based platforms because of the power that the US government wields. There is ZERO chance of the Indian govt blocking US platforms when Jaishankar is in the US to engage with the US government”.

What are these guidelines that the Centre wants all social media platforms to accept?

On February 25, the government had announced tighter regulations for social media firms, requiring them to remove any content flagged by authorities within 36 hours and setting up a robust complaint redressal mechanism with an officer being based in the country.

The government had set 50 lakh registered users as the threshold for defining ''significant social media intermediary'', meaning that large players like Twitter, Facebook and Google would have to comply with additional norms.

Announcing the guidelines in February, it had said the new rules take effect immediately, while significant social media providers (based on the number of users) will get three months before they need to start complying.

The three-month time period meant compliance by May 25.

Significant social media companies will also have to publish a monthly compliance report disclosing details of complaints received and action taken, as also details of contents removed proactively. They will also be required to have a physical contact address in India published on its website or mobile app, or both.

The new rules were introduced to make social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram - which have seen a phenomenal surge in usage over the past few years in India - more accountable and responsible for the content hosted on their platform.

Social media companies will have to take down posts depicting nudity or morphed photos within 24 hours of receiving a complaint.

Notably, the rules require significant social media intermediaries - providing services primarily in the nature of messaging - to enable identification of the "first originator" of the information that undermines the sovereignty of India, security of the state, or public order.

The intermediary, however, will not be required to disclose the contents of any message. This could have major ramifications for players like Twitter and WhatsApp.

“Requiring messaging apps to “trace” chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp, which would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermines people’s right to privacy," WhatsApp spokesperson said.

"We have consistently joined civil society and experts around the world in opposing requirements that would violate the privacy of our users. In the meantime, we will also continue to engage with the Government of India on practical solutions aimed at keeping people safe, including responding to valid legal requests for the information available to us," added the spokesperson.

The rules also state that users who voluntarily want to verify their accounts should be given an appropriate mechanism to do so and be accorded a visible mark of verification.

Users will have to be provided with a prior intimation and explanation when a significant social media intermediary removes content on its own. In such cases, users have to be provided with an adequate and reasonable opportunity to dispute the action taken by the intermediary.

"We respect India’s legislative process and have a long history of responding to government requests to remove content where the content violates the local law or our product policies," Google spokesperson said responding to the implementation of intermediary guidelines.

"We have consistently invested in significant product changes, resources, and personnel to ensure that we’re combating illegal content in an effective and fair way, and in order to comply with local laws in the jurisdictions that we operate in. We realize that our work in keeping our platforms secure is never done and we will continue to refine our existing approaches, and evolve our policies and be as transparent as possible about how we make decisions," the spokesperson added.