Intermediary rules get mixed reaction from Internet societies, experts

S Ronendra Singh New Delhi | Updated on February 25, 2021

Some felt there was no proper consultation with civil society organisations, private sector and academia

The government’s notification of Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 has received mixed reactions from the sector analysts and companies.

While some hold the view that traceability mechanism would help quicken the action, others felt there was no proper consultation with civil society organisations, private sector and academia on the new rules that were significantly different from the draft which was put out in December 2018.

Salient features of the new rules include due diligence that must be followed by intermediaries, including social media intermediaries, and in case due diligence is not followed, safe harbour provisions will not apply to them; it seeks to empower the users by mandating the intermediaries to establish a grievance redressal mechanism for receiving/resolving complaints from the users or victims; and appointing a Grievance Officer to deal with such complaints and share the name and contact details of such officer.

Also, to ensure online safety and dignity of users, especially women users, it stipulates that the intermediaries shall remove or disable access within 24 hours of receipt of complaints of ‘contents that exposes the private areas of individuals, show such individuals in full or partial nudity or in sexual act or is in the nature of impersonation, including morphed images’.

“The user/ victim rights has gained through the additions. Providing them alternatives without them having to seek recourse from courts or police is a much needed option. Laying down timelines for response again is welcome,” NS Nappinai, Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Founder - Cyber Saathi, said.

Likely to put pressure

Sajai Singh, Partner, J Sagar Associates, said the elements of traceability, local address requirement and 24-hour take down will surely put pressure on social media intermediaries. However, the rules could undermine the principles of open and accessible Internet, the fundamental right of privacy and freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the Constitution, said Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, Software Freedom Law Centre, India, adding that this could also lead to an erosion of the safe-harbour protection given to intermediaries under Section 79 of the IT Act.

“The provision mandating identification of the originator of information affects encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Signal. The traceability requirement coupled with the mandatory requirement for appointing a Chief Compliance Officer, a Nodal Contact person and a Resident Grievance Officer might make it difficult for platforms like Signal and Telegram to provide services in India. This will definitely not be in the interest of the user who will then have a limited choice of applications,” he said.

Facebook said the company has always been clear that it was 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. We acknowledge and appreciate the recognition from the Minister on the positive contributions of social media to the country. Facebook is an ally for India and the agenda of user safety and security is a critical one for our platforms. We will continue to work to ensure that our platforms play an enabling role in fuelling the exciting digital transformation of India,” a spokesperson said.

Will abide by laws

Meanwhile, Mayank Bidawataka, Co founder at Koo, said only a small fraction of the social media users are found to be making posts which may be against the laws of the land. The social media guidelines help address such situations uniformly across all social media platforms and ensure the safety of majority users.

“Enabling and maintaining freedom of speech is core to social media platforms. We will continue to work in the best interest of our users at all times and ensure that they have a great experience. At the same time, we are committed to abide by the laws of the land. This policy will help protect the interest of citizens at large and keep nefarious elements at bay,” he added.

Published on February 25, 2021

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