The government on Thursday notified new rules for social media and Over the Top (OTT) platforms ostensibly to provide a level playing field to media platforms cutting across print, television and digital platforms, while adding that digital platforms doing business in India would have to follow the law of the land.
Referring to the new rules as the government’s ‘soft touch oversight mechanism’, Union ministers Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad said while they were happy to see social media platforms empowering ordinary users – WhatsApp has over 53 crore users, YouTube 44.5 crore, Facebook 41 crore, Instagram 21 crore, and Twitter has 1.75 crore users – the rules are in response to scores of complaints against online content and the demand, as a result, for accountability against its “misuse and abuse”.
Government also said it will soon categorise social media into two categories; social media (SM) and significant social media (SSM), based on their subscription numbers.
Once categorisation is completed, SSM platforms will be given three months in which to set up a robust grievance redressal mechanism, along with publishing the name of the nodal officer who will ensure that complaints are registered within 24 hours and disposed within 15 days. The rules also mandate that in case of complaints about digital content hurting the dignity of users, especially, women, platforms will have to take down content in 24 hours.
In addition to this, the Rules mandate that SSM platforms must appoint a chief complaint officer residing in India, a Nodal contact also residing in India and a resident grievance officer. SSM platforms are also required to publish monthly compliance reports.
Even as the government insisted the proposed framework is “progressive, liberal and contemporaneous”, it insisted that SSM platforms will be required, on government or court orders, to remove unlawful content in 36 hours even as they must disclose information regarding the “first originator” or the source of the offensive content in 72 hours, a demand that social media companies like Whatsapp have said runs foul of their end-to-end encryption mechanism. Union IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, however, said the rule would apply to content that challenged the sovereignty of India, or was in contravention of security, integrity of the country, and where the crimes are liable for jail terms of 5 years or more.
In cases where the SSM platforms remove content on their own, or disable a user’s access to a platform, they will also be required to furnish reasons for the same, apart from hearing out the violator
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, which Prasad said were framed under the existing Information Technology Act, 2000 will also have a Code of Ethics and procedure and safeguards in relation to digital media, which shall be administered by the I&B ministry.
Explaining the rationale behind the rules, Union I&B minister Prakash Javadekar said that while regulatory mechanisms were in place for print and digital media, digital media had remained an unregulated space. “All media must have the same justice systems,” he said. The minister also said he had held deliberations with stakeholders in Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai, seeking self-regulation by digital platforms, but when they could not be implemented, the government decided to step in and set up an institutional mechanism for media.
Under the new rules, Javadekar said OTT and Digital media will be required to disclose information about where they publish, the nature of the content they share as well as the size of their subscriber data. They will also be required to set up a grievance redressal mechanism.
For regulation of OTT platforms, the government mandated that a self-regulation body, headed by the retired judge or an eminent person, should be set up. A separate oversight mechanism, as a third tier, has also been proposed, Javadekar said.