The IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 largely covers OTT (Over-the-top) and social media platforms. The new rules carry the burden of providing a robust complaint mechanism and stipulating a more user protective interface without disturbing the journalistic integrity and the right to privacy of the users. The new rules drastically increase the onus of social and digital media companies, but its implications reach down to individual users.
The new Rules have been passed under Sections 69A (2), 79(2)(c) and 87 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The new rules entail –
• The Rules aim to provide a robust complaint mechanism for the users with special emphasis on the protection of women and children from sexual offences on social media. The rules emphasize on the online content publishers and social media intermediaries to follow the Constitution of the country and subject themselves to domestic laws.
• It is also meant to provide a means of addressing grievances of content that can be harmful to national security as well as the modesty or safety of an individual.
• India, hence, joins other international regimes that have provisions for digital media regulation and provides a comprehensive mechanism for the protection of digital media consumers.
The new IT Rules 2021 say that digital media platforms now require a larger grievance redressal mechanism which will include a Chief Compliance Officer, a Nodal Contact Person and a Resident Grievance Officer. All social media platforms are required to publish these details on their apps and websites and explain to users the mechanism in place to make a complaint against any content on the platform. These complaints need to be acknowledged within 24 hours of receipt and these complaints need to be worked upon within a period of 15 days from the date of receipt.
Now, its implications require the entire extensive social media platform functioning in India to abide by the new IT rules and hands them the onus of regulating factually correct information on their platform and address any kind of mischievous activity or information that might threaten the national security of the country. Many companies including Twitter and WhatsApp are yet to abide by these rules instead they have filed cases against these laws stating that these threaten the Right to Privacy of the users and hence are demanding non-compliance of these rules.
WHAT HAPPENS IF THE NON-COMPLIANCE BECOMES AN ISSUE?
“When an intermediary fails to observe these rules, the provisions of sub-section (1) of section 79 of the Act shall not be applicable for such intermediary and the intermediary shall be liable for punishment under any law for the time being in force including the provisions of the Act and Indian Penal Code.”
Section 79 in The Information Technology Act, 2000 says that any social media intermediary will not be in the radar of legal action for any third party information, data, or communication link made available or hosted by him. It further reveals that the available protection shall be applicable if the said intermediary does not in any way, initiate the transmission of the message in question, select the receiver of the transmitted message, and do not modify any information contained in the transmission.
According to the new IT rules, the section 79 specifically gives digital media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp legal immunity in a way against liability for posts made on their networks, third party information or data. That legal immunity will be withdrawn if non-compliance becomes an issue.
PROS AND CONS OF THE NEW RULES-
According to the new norms under the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code of 2021, “Significant social media intermediaries” are defined as those social media companies which have more than 50 lakh registered users. WhatsApp, the messaging platform owned by Facebook, has challenged a clause in the new IT rules in India in court which mandates them to reveal the originator of a message.
The rules require companies to disclose the identity of “originator” of a message, and WhatsApp has found this unconstitutional and a violation of human rights. These new rules have ramifications on freedom of speech, online privacy and access to information. Possibilities are that the new guidelines might help the nation to get rid of circulation of fake news via WhatsApp University (or similar such mediums) and abuse of technology in spreading unethical content. But one cannot negate the impact it could have on people about voicing their opinion even in private for unwanted consequences that could totally be unjustified and yet legally correct.
While WhatsApp feels that the traceability clause will breach user privacy and hence is apprehensive in agreeing to the condition, Twitter is not ready to accept that the Chief compliance officer can be criminally accountable for any content shared on the platform. It is also against some of the conditions that force Twitter to share the details of its users and feels that this is inconsistent with open, democratic principles.
To sum up, the attempt made by the government to curb the dispersal of fake news and to fight national security threats posed by information on social media platform is coming at the price of the users private right to have an unaltered opinion which they are completely entitled to have but cannot freely express because it might be flagged as anti-national or unethical at the authority’s whim. As greatly said, with great power comes great responsibility, with the power to be able to hold the guilty accountable, comes the responsibility of keeping the innocent free and protected. The only question that needs to be answered is – Is a person’s freedom more important than strict regulative policies or vice versa?