NEW DELHI :
Netizens may soon have to link their social media accounts with government approved IDs after the Centre formulates guidelines to actively regulate the digital platforms in the country.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed the central government three months to formulate social media rules after the Centre said through an affidavit that it will require the time to collate and analyse the information from stakeholders and hold inter-ministerial consultations before finalizing and notifying revised social media rules in accordance with law.
The affidavit by the Centre said the process for the finalizing and notifying the Information Technology Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules, 2018, is “likely to be completed by 15th January 2020."
An apex court bench comprising Justices Deepak Gupta and Aniruddha Bose has asked the Centre to notify the rules for regulation of social media platforms in 90 days.
The top court also asked the registry to place all connected matters before the Chief Justice of India for listing before an appropriate bench in last week of January 2020, after the Centre formulates new guidelines for intermediaries.
The court questioned the government’s stand of asking intermediaries to decrypt messages on their portals.
Attorney general K.K. Venugopal, who appeared for the state of Tamil Nadu, submitted that provisions of the Information Technology Act provides for decryption of data and information. However, Justice Gupta pointed out that the provision empowers the government to encrypt the data by themselves. “Can we force the intermediaries to decrypt the data for you is the question," said Justice Gupta.
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for WhatsApp, said, “There is no obligation on our part to help in decryption. The intermediaries are caught between pro-privacy parties and the government."
The Supreme Court also allowed the transfer to itself of all cases related to the proposed linking of Aadhaar to social media profiles. Facebook Inc. had filed a plea saying the Supreme Court should hear petitions pending in various high courts collectively to avoid conflicting judgements. Two petitions in Madras high court and one each in Bombay high court and Madhya Pradesh high court were filed by separate parties. The social media giant also contended that sharing of Aadhaar details would infringe on the privacy of users.
The Tamil Nadu government had filed a counter affidavit that the Facebook transfer plea was replete with “false and misleading averments". Venugopal, however, said Tamil Nadu was not opposed to the transfer of cases to the top court.
Supratim Chakraborty, a partner at law firm Khaitan & Co., noted that intermediaries should be regulated as large tech players are occupying the market with non-commensurate accountability. “User privacy would be pivotal when these rules are framed and the government needs to strike a delicate balance," Chakraborty said.
However, digital activists believe that such stringent norms might lead to blatant violation of fundamental rights of freedom of speech and privacy.
There would be a great degree of danger when end-to-end encryption on messaging platforms is broken, warned Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation.
“Given that India does not have any kind of surveillance reform, no judicial oversight, and that all the power is centralized with the executive branch of government, national security agencies and policing authorities, the prospect of surveillance becomes very real. One really needs to be cautious in making such kind of decisions, which comes from the need of national security but may ultimately undermine freedom of speech and privacy of large number of people," Gupta said.
Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of MediaNama and an active proponent of internet freedom, believes that stringent norms will impact every entity on the internet because all digital firms can be dubbed as an intermediary. It could be all ISPs, domain registrars, SAAS firms, payment companies, job marketplaces, server providers, and even e-commerce companies.
“This is going to lead to the creation of upload filters by private companies, and that’s basically the China model of internet censorship," Pahwa contended. “The norms that were used by social media platforms during the general elections, where they were self regulating and actively moderating content for hate speech and misinformation is the only effective way forward," he said.