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‘Details matter, will study rules’ — Facebook’s guarded response to Modi govt’s new norms

Modi govt has announced guidelines for online media — OTT platforms, social media and online news portals — under IT (Intermediary Guidelines & Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules.

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New Delhi: Facebook said Thursday that it will “carefully study” the new digital media guidelines issued by the Modi government, but added that it “welcomes regulations that set guidelines for addressing today’s toughest challenges on the internet”.

The US tech giant owns three of the biggest social media portals in India, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. 

ThePrint also emailed queries to the media inquiry IDs of Twitter and Google, which owns YouTube. While Twitter declined to comment, there was no response from Google till the time of publishing this report.

The Modi government Thursday announced a series of guidelines and code of ethics for online media — including OTT platforms, social media and digital news portals — under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. 

Among the most notable rules for social media is one that requires companies primarily offering messaging services to “enable identification of the first originator of the information”. 

This, the rules state, is “required only for the purposes of prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution or punishment of an offence related to sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order or of incitement to an offence relating to the above or in relation with rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than five years”.

The rule, experts say, may prove challenging to follow for social media companies that draw in users with the promise of end-to-end encryption — which means only sender and recipient can see the messages exchanged.

Announcing the rules, the government said social media platforms “are welcome to do business in India but they need to follow the Constitution and laws of India”. “Social media platforms have empowered ordinary users but they need accountability against its misuse and abuse,” it added.

Also Read: Modi govt announces tough, new rules to regulate social media, OTT platforms & digital news

‘An ally for India’

Reached for comment on the guidelines, a Facebook spokesperson said the company “is committed to people’s ability to freely and safely express themselves on our platforms”. 

“The details of rules like these matter and we will carefully study the new rules that were just published. We acknowledge and appreciate the recognition from the minister on the positive contributions of social media to the country,” the spokesperson added, saying Facebook “is an ally for India”. 

“The agenda of user safety and security is a critical one for our platforms. We will continue to work to ensure that our platforms play an enabling role in fuelling the exciting digital transformation of India,” the spokesperson said.

A query about the rule regarding the identification of message origin wasn’t addressed. However, Facebook had emphasised its stance on encryption when reached for comment on another matter last year.

Last year, when India, Japan, UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand issued a joint statement seeking access to encrypted messages for law enforcement, a Facebook spokesperson told ThePrint that it has “long argued that end-to-end encryption is necessary to protect people’s most private information”. 

“In all of these countries, people prefer end-to-end encrypted messaging on various apps because it keeps their messages safe from hackers, criminals, and foreign governments. Facebook has led the industry in developing new ways to prevent, detect, and respond to abuse while maintaining high security and we will continue to do so,” the spokesperson added.

Also Read: Twitter should stand firm in its spat with Modi govt

Likely ‘pain points’

Under the new framework, while the IT ministry will administer rules relating to social media firms, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry will be tasked with those about OTT platforms and other digital media.

A government press release about the rules dwelt at length about the proliferation of social media before estimating their reach in India. According to figures cited by the government, WhatsApp has 53 crore users in India, YouTube 44.8 crore, Facebook 41 crore, Instagram 21 crore, and Twitter 1.75 crore.

A public policy professional who formerly worked with an American big tech firm said the identification requirement could be among the pain points for social media companies. 

“Encrypted messaging apps are not able to view contents of messages, and having to follow these rules might mean encryption will have to be broken. Encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal will either have to stop providing their service to users if they are not willing to comply with the rules, or will have to comply with the rules, which will violate user privacy,” said the expert, who didn’t want to be named.

“It is also hard to imagine that intermediaries like encrypted messaging app WhatsApp will be able to maintain a large and fast growing database of messages… if WhatsApp tries to comply with rules asking it to trace origin of… a message,” the expert added.

The expert also flagged the deadlines set by the rules for compliance to different provisions.

“Provisions asking social media intermediaries with global operations to take down non-consensual sexual content in 24 hours, take down any other content that threatens national security when ordered by the government in 36 hours, and providing information when requested by a government-authorised agency in 72 hours is not taking into account the time it takes for a global team to discuss and decide on the course forward,” the expert said. “These are very short deadlines to remove content and comply with information requests.”

However, the expert added, since the government has allowed a three-month period before the rules kick in, “perhaps the social media intermediaries can come together and collectively discuss with the government how best to implement these rules”. 

“Perhaps there can be an understanding that timelines to take down content only start after the social media firm has fully understood why the government will need it to be removed etc,” the expert said.

Also Read: Narendra Modi is ruling India as if it was another state and he is still a chief minister


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