New Delhi: The union government is likely to introduce new guidelines by September to heighten the accountability of internet and social media companies under Indian law and to ensure they react quickly to stop the spread of rumours or offensive content on their platforms, according to a top official.The stringent move will involve the notification of fresh clauses under existing intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, the official told ET. This comes on the back of what the government deems as a tardy response by messaging platform WhatsApp to its demand for action in the wake of violent crimes stoked by rumours circulated on the platform.“The draft of the guidelines is ready and alegal firm is vetting it. It should be out by September,” the person said.The proposed guidelines will mandate global internet and social media firms to name a grievance officer in the country tasked with responding to complaints within a few hours, as well as ensure there is traceability of content.The intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the IT Act, which was notified in 2011, mandates companies to follow “due diligence” and allowed time up to 36 hours for companies to remove objectionable content and name a grievance officer on its website for response. However, these guidelines were not stringently enforced. Currently, internet firms such as Google and Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp, are categorised as intermediaries which act as facilitators and do not actively take part in creating or modifying information.
“The ball is now in our court, we have to come out with guidelines under Section 79 of the IT Act and then we can take it to WhatsApp (or any other internet company) and say you are not complying with them,” the government officer told ET. “These will provide us with tools to enforce (things), right now they say that they are endto-end encrypted so can’t trace the origin of messages,” the official said.Legal experts say the move by the government to mandate the traceability of messages circulated will open up a “can of worms” since the law will also be binding on text messages on cellular networks.“The government can’t expect officials of companies to take decisions on content within a few hours, something the courts will take many years to decide,” said Rahul Matthan, partner at law firm Trilegal. “There are some sites such as Facebook which curate the news feed and play some active control, and we can put responsibility on them, but all messages don’t need to be reviewed to solve this,” he said.India’s move to take stern action in the form of new regulation comes after it was dissatisfied with the response of Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which has over 200 million users in the country, to react speedily to misuse of its platform by rumour mongers. Earlier this year, unfounded rumours circulated on the messaging app had led to lynching of several people across the country. While WhatsApp has come up with measures to limit forwards and identify such forwarded messages, it is too little and too late, top officials told ET.Union minister for electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad had recently told Parliament that the government will strengthen the implementation of Section 79 of the IT Act to fight the menace of fake news. Companies will also be required to have grievance officers stationed in India, he had said.Meanwhile privacy experts are of the view that the proposed guidelines, if enforced, could potentially violate the Supreme Court’s past verdict during the 2015 Shreya Singhal judgement.“The Section 79 rules were subject to review and reading down by the Supreme Court of India in its landmark Shreya Singhal judgment. Any change to them would impact constitutional rights, and requires great care and open discussion,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, global policy director at Access Now, a digital advocacy group. “It’s unfortunate that the government body tasked to manage this — the Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee –appears to not be meeting or engaging with stakeholders publicly.”On Tuesday, Prasad told WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels that the company should comply with local laws, establish a corporate entity in the country and also appoint a grievance officer in India. WhatsApp has also been asked to provide a technological solution to detect the origin of messages which are being circulated at a mass level in a particular area apart from storing data in India, he said.Daniels did not comment on the matter. It is also not clear whether WhatsApp has committed to the government’s demand of ensuring traceability of messages on its platform which is end-to-end encrypted. A spokesperson for the American company said “attributing messages on WhatsApp would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse. Our focus is on improving WhatsApp and working closer with others in society to help keep people safe”, in response to emailed queries from ET on Tuesday.The company’s position on the matter (of traceability of messages) has “not changed”, the representative said. Trilegal’s Matthan said the Supreme Court has asked the government to come up with a law against lynching and not against the messenger. “The legislature can’t amend the concepts which have been laid down by the apex court during the Singhal judgement,” he added. Briefing reporters on his talks with WhatsApp’s Daniels, minister Prasad said the company (WhatsApp) has agreed to set up a corporate entity in India, appoint a grievance officer in the country as well as follow the local laws of the land.
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