India’s new rules to regulate social media, OTT & digital news platforms

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The government Thursday announced new rules to regulate digital content and establish what it called a "soft touch progressive institutional mechanism. Representational image.

The government Thursday announced new rules to regulate digital content and establish what it called a “soft touch progressive institutional mechanism with level-playing field” featuring a Code of Ethics and a three-tier grievance redressal framework for news sites and OTT platforms. The rules will empower users of social media, said Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

For the first time, the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 prescribes how digital news organisations, social media platforms and OTT streaming services will be regulated by the government.

The rules include a strict oversight mechanism involving several ministries and a code of ethics that bans content affecting “the sovereignty and integrity of India” and that which threatens national security.

Social media giants will be required to appoint India-based compliance officers. If they remove content, they will be required to inform users, give reasons for taking down their post and hear them out.

The rules make traceability of the originator of messages a must on prominent social media sites, which goes against end-to-end encryption on messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and Signal. “Who began the mischief? You have to say,” said Prasad, explaining this rule.

Committee for oversight mechanism

A committee with representatives from the ministries of Defence, External Affairs, Home, I&B, Law, IT and Women and Child Development will be part of the oversight mechanism.

This committee will have “suo motu powers” to call hearings on complaints of violation of the Code of Ethics if it wants. The committee can warn, censuring, admonish or reprimand violators, seek an apology besides other actions.

The government will designate an officer of the rank of a Joint Secretary or above as the “Authorised Officer” who can direct blocking of content.

The rules force streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video, who objected to an independent appellate body for hearing streaming complaints, to submit to the authority of an appeals body headed by a retired high court or Supreme Court justice. Detailed classification of content on the basis of age sex, violence and nudity has also been listed.

If the appellate body believes that the content violates the law, it is empowered to send the content to a government-controlled committee for blocking orders to be issued.

The code of ethics will include rules of journalistic conduct under the Press Council of India.

New websites will have to be registered on the Information and Broadcasting Ministry site.

The key points:

  1. Bars content that is defamatory, obscene, libelous, racist, harmful to minors, threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India and its ties with other countries
  2. Social media sites have to remove or disable offensive or illegal content within 36 hours of being notified or of a court order.
  3. Social media messaging sites have to enable tracking of first originator of information.
  4. The intermediary has to, within 72 hours, provide information to the government agency authorised to investigate cyber security incidents and violation of the law.
  5. Companies have to appoint a grievance officer to receive, acknowledge and resolve complaints within a month.
  6. An intermediary has to, within 24 hours of a complaint, remove or disable access to content that is illegal or offensive.
  7. A three-tier mechanism to enforce the Code of Ethics: self-regulation; self-regulation by the self-regulating bodies; government’s oversight mechanism.
  8. An online grievance portal to receive and process all grievances from the public on any violation of the Code of Ethics. The grievance has to be addressed within 15 days.
  9. Tech giants will also have to appoint grievance officers.

A Chief Compliance Officer resident in India and compliance reports every six months.

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