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Govt moves to rein in social media platforms ahead of Lok Sabha polls

IT ministry seeking feedback from public on draft changes by Jan 15

Karan Choudhury  |  New Delhi 

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Days after enabling 10 security agencies to intercept, monitor, and decrypt information from computers across the country, the government is moving to rein in social media platforms.

From providing the source of any information deemed a threat to national security, removing objectionable content within 24 hours to having permanent offices in India if the user base is above 5 million, the government is planning amendments to the Information Technology (IT) Act and has sought public feedback by January 15 before taking a final call.

If the plan materialises, it would be mandatory for social media giants such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter to trace the originator of information if needed. The platforms would also need to remove such content within 24 hours of being notified.

On their part, social media firms said they would follow all regulations but privacy of its users would be of utmost concern. “These are preliminary steps. We have to see what rules and regulations are finally formulated,” said a source close to Faceboook.

According to sources in the IT ministry, the government plans to bring in changes in the IT Act before the 2019 polls. “The government wants to plug the root causes of fake news that have led to incidents like rioting and lynching. Before the elections, fake news can create law and order hassles and that is the reason they want social media firms to follow the amended IT Act,” said a senior official in the ministry.

IT ministry officials held a meeting last week with senior executives of Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other companies to discuss the proposed changes.

A few months ago the government had asked chat messaging platforms such as WhatsApp to provide details of the providers of fake news. The company had then said that there were privacy issues and such details can’t be shared. Since then, however, WhatsApp has taken a middle path and paid heed to the government’s other demands, including having a local team, an India head as well as having an office in the country.

According to the draft, which was uploaded on the IT ministry’s website on Monday, automated tools would have to be deployed by social media platforms to identify and disable "unlawful content". Users would be asked to guard against hosting or sharing information that violates any law, deceives or misleads receivers about the origin of messages that are grossly offensive or menacing in nature, or those which threaten national security. These internet companies will also have to preserve relevant records for 180 days for investigation purposes or longer periods, if required.

It has also been proposed that the platforms should inform users at least once a month that if rules are violated, access and user rights would be terminated.

The Congress said if these amendments were cleared, there would be a tremendous expansion in the power of the "big brother" government on ordinary citizens, "reminiscent of eerie dictatorships". When the government allowed the 10 agencies to snoop on computers across India, the Congress accusing the Centre of trying to create a "surveillance state".

Experts also warned that amendments, which would allow traceability of "unlawful content", invade personal privacy and free speech. Cyberlaw expert Pavan Duggal said that some of the changes planned are akin to India's own anti-encryption law. The proposed changes in rules will place social media platforms — even those like WhatsApp which promise users privacy and encryption — firmly under government lens.

Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist, opined that the changes mooted to the IT Act are "harmful" for democracy and free speech. The requirement for platforms to proactively take down content will lead to censorship of speech, Pahwa said. "The amendments are also contrary to the spirit of section 79 of the IT Act, which was created to provide safe harbour to intermediaries, which are enablers of speech and commerce. Also, any government order for traceability must be backed by a judicial order, else it will enable unrestricted surveillance of citizens," he said.

First Published: Tue, December 25 2018. 02:00 IST
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