While the situation in India might not have escalated to such apocalyptic notches, the developments of the past few days are certainly telling, when it comes to the notion of freedom of expression and the right to privacy here. Social media firms operating in India will now have to abide by the guidelines of the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, which was implemented from Wednesday. These provisions were outlined in February this year and social media firms were given three months to comply. Among the primary mandates is the appointment of locally based grievance redressal, compliance, and nodal officers. The other requirements include active monitoring of content on such platforms, monthly compliance reports on users, and self-regulation mechanisms.
Specifically, the aspect of active monitoring of content has both netizens and tech stakeholders up in arms. Social media platforms are now bound by law to take down any content flagged by authorities as objectionable, within 36 hours. The new rules also mandate that messaging platforms like WhatsApp must disclose the origin of flagged messages, essentially permitting the government to trace the message to its original sender. Just this week, the instant messaging behemoth owned by Facebook filed a lawsuit against the Centre in the Delhi High Court, arguing that the idea of providing access to messages that are encrypted end to end, would lay waste to all notions of safeguarding user privacy. They were deemed as unconstitutional and a dangerous invasion of privacy by WhatsApp.
Union Minister for IT, Law and Justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad had countered this argument on Thursday, saying ordinary users of such platforms have nothing to fear and the requirement for tracing pertains only to offences relating to the security of the nation, and crimes involving rape and child sexual abuse. The new rules have major implications for platforms, which have over 5 mn users each. WhatsApp has over 53 cr users in India while Facebook has 41 cr Indian subscribers, and Twitter has a 1.75 crore strong user base here. This week, Twitter’s India office was also visited by the Delhi Police in the backdrop of the ongoing probe concerning the toolkit row that has erupted between the ruling party and the main opposition. The visit coincided with Twitter flagging some tweets by BJP leaders as Manipulated Media. The platform had received a notice of non-compliance from the IT Ministry, for not taking down content that was critical of the Centre’s lapses in handling COVID-19.
These aren’t solitary cases. In February, the Centre compelled Twitter to block over 500 accounts of those accused of making inflammatory statements against the Prime Minister. The platform has now called out the Centre’s intimidation tactics and said that it would continue its push for supporting free speech online, a task that seems to be getting harder by the day. WhatsApp has been shut down many times in Brazil over its refusal to hand over user data to the government. In March, the Russian government said that it would slow down access to Twitter, which happens to be one of the few platforms where Russians critique their government. The Centre is content to steamroll new digital media rules to online news and OTT platforms too. They have been given two weeks to offer details on compliance mechanisms. On one hand, the government has taken a step to counter the dissemination of misinformation online. That’s certainly a welcome move. But what might be a casualty in this initiative, is the concept of an administration tolerant of criticism. Stifling dissent can never be the stock-in-trade of a people’s government. And citizens mustn’t be penalised for their role in calling a spade a spade.