In February this year, the new IT Rules, 2021 were issued. They are controversial because they fundamentally change the Indian internet in such a way that the government has excessive control over social media, OTT platforms, and digital news media. At least 6 writ petitions have been filed before 3 high courts challenging them. Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter were given a deadline to comply with these rules. Deadline was till the 25th of May. It was stated that if the companies failed to comply to the government’s demands before the deadline was before, they would face severe consequences – even up to criminal prosecution.
Social media users create content on those platforms, some create while others share. Social media acts as an intermediary. People create content, social media acts as platforms which hosts it, hence it is an intermediary. Those rules, the IT Rules 2021, apply to social media intermediary. Intermediaries have immunity, they cannot be held responsible for anything the user posts through it. They cannot be held liable to their user’s content as long as they comply with certain rules set by the government of the country they are operating in.
According to the new set of ruled rolled out by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, all the social media platforms will have to appoint compliance officers from India. This officer will be responsible to look over all the complaints that arrive at his desk regarding the social media platform that he is looking after. Also, they will monitor the content and even have the power to remove any content if it is objectionable. These rules are applicable to both social media platforms as well as OTT platforms.
All significant social media platforms with more than 50 lakh (5 million) users, which means Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Koo, for instance, are very much categorized as large social media platforms and come into the ambit of the new rules. As of March this year, WhatsApp has more than 390 million users in India and Facebook had clocked 320 million users in India, as of January 2021. The deadline to comply to these rules was until the 25th of May. Since most of these platforms except Koo had agreed to comply, people on the internet started to think that these sites would be banned. However, Facebook agreed to comply late on the 25th which means every other platforms which is owned by Facebook would comply, Instagram for an instance. However, Whatsapp decided to sue to the centre as it believed that thes rules invade the privacy of their users.
Indian government in the recent past has gathered criticism for silencing dissent on social media. With these rules, the involvement of the government on social media would increase manifolds. Yes, platforms needs to be regulated but in a manner that gives users power over the platforms. Not in a manner that empowers governments and allows them to use those platforms to control the speech of the users. “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, which has nearly 400 million users in India, said in a statement today. This statement by Whatsapp while suing the centre for the new rules aptly sums up the arbitrary nature of the new guidelines, which is the IT Rules 2021.