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Government Letter To Apple On Asking IT Rules Compliance Withdrawn

Thursday, 15 July 2021, 04:51 Hrs

Following the implementation of the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code — commonly called the IT Rules — on May 26, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) is learned to have written to Apple India seeking details on compliance with the new rules, specifically with respect to the US tech major’s proprietary messaging service.

The letter, however, was later withdrawn after the government reached an understanding that Apple’s iMessage would not be considered a ‘social media intermediary’ as it was not “primarily or solely” an instant messaging service provider for enabling interaction between two or more users, sources told.

Neither Apple nor the IT Ministry responded to queries seeking to know whether iMessage fell under the purview of a ‘significant social media intermediary’ and whether the ministry had flagged this issue in its letter to Apple.

The government defines ‘social media intermediary’ as any platform which ‘primarily or solely’ allows and enables online interaction ‘between two or more users, while also permitting these users to ‘create, upload, share, disseminate, modify or access information using its services. Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, Telegram, Signal and LinkedIn are among the major social media intermediaries operating in India.

On May 26, following the end of the 90-day period for social media intermediaries to comply with the IT Rules, the Ministry had written to all social media platforms seeking details of compliance such as name and contact of the chief compliance officer, nodal contact person, and resident grievance officer as mandated by the rules.

The Ministry had, in its letter, also said that if a platform thinks it is not a significant social media intermediary, it must “provide the reasons for the same, including the registered users on each of the services” being offered by them. As per the new IT Rules, any social media intermediary with more than 5 million active users in India would be considered a ‘significant social media intermediary’.

Such companies, apart from appointing executives in these roles, would also have to publish a monthly compliance report detailing the number of complaints it received, the action taken and the number of complaints resolved.

Since Apple’s iMessage has more than 25 million active users in India, it was initially deemed as coming under the purview of a ‘significant social media intermediary’. Sources, however, said the Ministry reached a conclusion that since iMessage is not a standalone messaging app that can be downloaded on any device, it is not being considered as being “primarily or solely” an entity separate from Apple.

“Unlike other messaging apps like, say, WhatsApp, can anyone download iMessage on their phone and use it? If that logic is to be applied, even food delivery platforms, and especially gaming platforms provide an option of chatting with other gamers. Should they also be considered a social media intermediary then? The answer is no,” a senior government official said.

Industry sources, however, said that as per the guideline of the IT Rules, no messaging platform can be out of the purview of compliance.

“This is not just about Apple. If you see clauses (v) and (w), the moment you say that a company 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, there is no way a messaging platform is out of it. Whether it comes coupled with a device or not, the fact is that iMessage is seen as a messaging service across the world,” a senior industry executive said, asking not to be named.

Clause of the new IT Rules defines the threshold for the number of users, beyond which a social media intermediary will be considered ‘significant’. Clause talks about the definition of a social media intermediary.