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The government’s new rules to regulate social media content, forcing companies such as Facebook and WhatsApp to remove posts and share details of certain messages with state authorities, will compromise the privacy of millions of online users in India, experts said.

The rules also do not have safeguards to ensure that users of social media platforms are made aware that their personal data will be stored and analysed by the tech giants. Experts fear the new rules may lead to widespread gathering of personal information by social media platforms in the absence of an online privacy law.

“There are some parts of the rules that may infringe on user privacy and go against the ‘data minimization’ principle of the data protection law," said Gurshabad Grover, senior policy officer at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS).

The data minimization principle advocates that only those user data should be collected and processed that are adequate and necessary for that purpose. Globally, it is being followed strictly under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The GDPR regulations, for instance, include requiring the consent of users for data processing, anonymizing collected data to protect privacy, providing data breach notifications, safely handling the transfer of data across borders and requiring certain companies to appoint a data protection officer to oversee GDPR compliance. In addition to EU members, it is important to note that any company that markets goods or services to EU residents, regardless of its location, is subject to this regulation.

This is in contrast to the new rules, which mandate intermediaries to retain user information given during the registration process for 180 days (or six months), even after users delete their accounts.

The rules also state that users who want to verify their accounts should be provided with an appropriate mechanism. Messaging platforms, which offer end-to-end encryption for greater privacy, have been asked to identify the ‘first originator’, which means identifying an internet user who starts sharing any type of mischievous information, which many privacy experts fear is a veiled attempt at state surveillance.

“To comply with this rule, messaging platforms will have to store metadata, which is often deleted as soon as a message is delivered. Clearly, the government is going in the territory of calling for constitutional scrutiny on the right to privacy and stepping into murky legal territory whether all of this is possible through delegated legislation," Grover noted.

Google and Twitter declined to comment on the new rules. Facebook said it is committed to people’s ability to freely and safely express themselves on its platforms.

“The details of rules like these matter, and we will carefully study the new rules that were just published," said a Facebook spokesperson.

To be sure, data is collected through various means such as cookies and software development kits by or on behalf of corporations to create products and services for consumers.

Social media platforms, in particular, collect data to serve customized and targeted advertising. However, user data also has the potential to be used to mould public opinion or disrupt public order.

There is widespread gathering of personal information of users, said Apar Gupta, executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation.

“What is required in India is sound public policy choices, which can be made by the government to protect the rights and provide for the welfare of individual internet users in India. The new rules seem to fix accountability on big tech platforms such as Facebook or Google but at a much higher cost to end-users by compromising the freedom of their speech and online privacy," he added.

There is also rising concern on government asking intermediaries to rely on an underdeveloped technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) for censoring abusive content by relying on and collecting a massive amount of user data.

“Development of artificial intelligence (AI) tools of censorship is replete with a host of risks, including the underdeveloped and imperfect nature of AI," noted Gupta. “AI learns by examining vast amounts of data, and the development of a censorship AI is likely to require social media intermediaries to store and examine large amounts of user-generated content that does not in any way relate to the kind of content sought to be censored."

Supreme Court lawyer Virag Gupta said the government needs to notify the data protection law as mandated by a nine-judge Supreme Court ruling.

“In the absence of a stringent law, there are a billion digital users whose right to privacy and life are being denied by the government as well as the tech giants," he added

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