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The government on Thursday unveiled sweeping rules aimed at giving it greater control over large social media and messaging firms, such as Facebook and Twitter, digital news websites and video-streaming platforms.

The new rules are likely to have far-reaching implications for digital media and follow a clash with Twitter over the farmers’ protest.

The rules, called the ‘Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, were described as “soft-touch regulatory architecture" by the government.

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Slippery slope

They require big social media companies to take down unlawful content within a specific time-frame after being served either a court order or a notice by an appropriate government agency.

In addition, “significant social media intermediaries" will be required to identify the “first originator" of “mischievous content" on messaging apps, a move that may spark fears of state surveillance.

According to the rules, social media platforms have been divided on the basis of the number of users. Smaller platforms are ‘social media intermediaries’, while the big ones have been classed as ‘significant social media intermediaries’.

The government is yet to notify the threshold of user-base to distinguish between these two.

Significant social media intermediaries will have to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact person who will coordinate with law enforcement agencies and a resident grievance officer. All three have to be residents of India. “The government welcomes criticism and the right to dissent. Social media has been used to ask questions, but it is important that users must also be given a proper forum for resolution of grievances in a time-bound manner against the abuse and misuse of social media," information and technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters.

He said social media platforms amassed significant numbers of users in India. They include WhatsApp (530 million), YouTube (448 million), Facebook (410 million), Instagram (210 million) and Twitter (17.5 million).

These big platforms will have to publish a monthly compliance report with details of complaints received and action taken.

“The details of rules like these matter and we will carefully study the new rules that were just published. We will continue to work to ensure that our platforms play an enabling role in fuelling the exciting digital transformation of India, “ said a Facebook spokesperson.

Spokespeople for Twitter and Google declined to comment.

The rules also state that users who want to verify their accounts voluntarily should be provided with an appropriate mechanism. Significant social media intermediaries will have to provide prior intimation to users before removing or disabling access to any information shared by them.

Importantly, upon receiving a court order, the rules restrict big intermediaries from hosting or publishing any information that is prohibited under the law in relation to “the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India; security of the state public order, friendly relations with foreign states; decency or morality; in relation to contempt of court; defamation; incitement to an offence relating to the above

Gurshabad Grover, senior policy officer at Centre for Internet and Society, welcomed the attempt to bring accountability through grievance redressal.

He added, “Legally speaking, certain points in the guidelines amount to a significant obligation that is not foreseeable from the text of the law itself. Going into the invasion of privacy (through tracing of the first originator) and defining types of intermediaries (two kinds of social media intermediaries) should be done through law and not through delegated legislation. At its worst, this can be seen as an attempt to bypass the Parliament."

The government also tightened its control over digital news media and OTT (over-the-top) video streaming platforms through a three-tier mechanism. While the first two tiers bring in place a system of self-regulation by the platform and by the self-regulatory bodies of content publishers, the third calls for an oversight mechanism by the central government.

“The idea is to create a level-playing field for all media since print and television already worked under certain restrictions," information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar said.

The government had asked OTT platforms to come up with a code of self-regulation several times but the last draft of the code allowed for no third-party intervention. While freedom of the press is “absolute", it comes with responsibility, Javadekar added.

Publishers of news on digital media would be required to observe the norms of journalistic conduct of the Press Council of India and the programme code under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act.

According to the new rules, the digital website or content publisher will have to appoint a grievance redressal officer based in India who will have to act upon the complaint within 15 days. The second tier will comprise the self-regulatory body of the news publisher or streaming platforms headed by a retired Supreme Court or high court judge or an eminent person. Third, and most importantly, the I&B ministry will establish an inter-departmental committee for hearing grievances.

Instead of pre-censorship, platform owners will have to classify their content according to different age groups: “U" or universal rating, and others for 7+, 13+, 16+ and 18+ age groups.

“These guidelines are on expected lines and are really quite mild compared to the kind of pre-censorship of content many were fearing," said a senior executive at a streaming platform.

The rules, the person said, have stemmed from the industry’s failure to formulate a code of self-regulation that would satisfy the government.

However, he said, OTT platforms will have developed these classifications for India as they do not exist in other countries. Platforms would also be required to implement parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher and reliable age verification mechanisms for content classified as “A".

Karan Taurani, an analyst at Elara Capital Ltd, said the move will lead to a consolidation in the OTT industry or shutdown of niche apps that rely on adult content but will augur well for large global giants and broadcaster-led OTTs,.

Netflix, ZEE5, Shemaroo, Hoichoi and ALTBalaji declined to comment. Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, SonyLIV, Eros Now, VOOT, MX Player and Lionsgate Play did not respond to Mint’s queries.

The courts will need to be involved in the interpretation of some aspects of the new rules, said Chandrima Mitra, a partner at DSK Legal. “There are various categories of ratings now, which may become more cumbersome for the content creator as well as the platform."

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