The central government is set to introduce a fresh notification with a set of guidelines to make social media platforms — Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google etc — more accountable for the offensive content and rumours being spread on these platforms.
Rumours and fake news proliferating on social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook have resulted in a series of mob lynchings and killings in recent times. The platforms have also become a medium for child pornography, which is illegal in India.
Earlier this month, as reported by Inc42, the department of telecommunications (DoT) had sought recommendations from telecom operators to block social media apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram during emergencies.
The DoT, in its letter, had invoked Section 69A of the Information Technology Act (IT Act) 2000, asking Internet service providers (ISPs), “to explore various possible options and confirm how the Instagram/Facebook/Whatsapp/Telegram and such other mobile apps can be blocked on the Internet.”
However, according to an ET report, the fresh notification to be issued by the central government will be placed under Section 79 of the IT Act.
Citing an anonymous government official, the report says, “The draft of the guidelines is ready and a legal firm is vetting it. It should be out by September.” Existing Section 79 (3) makes the “intermediaries — social media platforms” liable given that:
(a) the intermediary has conspired or abetted or aided or induced, whether by threats or promise or otherwise in the commission of the unlawful act;
(b) upon receiving actual knowledge, or on being notified by the appropriate Government or its agency that any information, data or communication link residing in or connected to a computer resource controlled by the intermediary is being used to commit the unlawful act, the intermediary fails to expeditiously remove or disable access to that material on that resource without vitiating the evidence in any manner.
Currently, the norm mandates intermediaries such as Googe and Facebook to remove objectionable content within 36 hours after it receives a notice relating to the content, either from courts or from the government authorities.
However, taking note of the fact that content can go viral on social media platforms within a few hours from the time of posting, the current window of 36 hours to take down the content is expected to be reduced to a few hours.
The move is being viewed as a way to curb freedom of expression. Regarding Internet shutdowns as a standard measuring the freedom of expression index in a state, according to a UNESCO report, India witnessed the highest number of Internet ban instances in the last one year, 2017-2018.
More than 10 instances of the Internet being affected were registered in Rajasthan, while Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, and Haryana saw less than 10 cases of Internet shutdown in 2017-18. Last year, the hill town of Darjeeling in West Bengal witnessed internet ban during its 104-day strike in the wake of statehood demands.
Considering WhatsApp, Facebook Messengers and Telegrams are end-to-end encrypted, as per government officials, the notification under Section 79 of the IT Act will accord concerned government authorities the power to enforce tools that could decrypt messages and trace their origin.
These moves have resulted in protests from the champions of social media freedom. Industry bodies too shot down the government’s measures to control what goes around on social media platforms. In a letter written to telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan, ASSOCHAM said, “Overly broad, extended, or frequent blocks would also run directly counter to the government’s stated objective of facilitating the emergence of a new Digital India.”