Team ulaunch explains the causes of the tussle between Whatsapp, Twitter and the Government of India over the new IT rules.
With the new IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 coming into force, a broad spectrum of Indian Digital Media has now come under its ambit. Numerous messaging apps, OTT platforms, social media websites, digital media broadcasting and publishing networks, will have to comply with increased regulations.
The Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITy), on 25th, February 2021, issued the new guidelines, with 25th May 2021 being the last date for the social media platforms to comply with these rules. IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had requested all the social media and OTT platforms, and other digital broadcasting networks to comply with the issued guidelines.
Initially, many companies were against adhering to the rules, though they have now complied with the same. While most of the social media platforms including Facebook, and YouTube have agreed to comply with the rules, a Facebook subsidiary- WhatsApp, and Twitter have put forth their objections. WhatsApp even sued the Indian Government in the Delhi High Court over a ‘traceability’ clause. Initially, the companies were against adhering to the rules, though they have now complied with the same. Initially, the companies were against adhering to the rules, though they have now complied with the same. Let’s have a look and get a clear idea as to why these companies had been sceptical about complying with the new IT rules.
Need of the new IT rules
The initiation of the ‘Digital India’ campaign by the Indian government in 2015, has led to an extensive escalation in the digitization of Indian society. It is strengthening the Indian citizens with the power of technology and the Internet. With the advent expansion of the Internet, many social media and digital media platforms have diversified their footprints in India. Social media giants such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Telegram etc and OTT platforms such as Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime have discovered India as a booming lucrative market.
These social media platforms have extensively connected people across the globe and enabled them to stay informed with the recent happenings, form opinions and also share their views about the same. Amplification of social media, on one hand, empowered and strengthened the citizens but on the other hand, resulted in the emergence of numerous significant concerns and their severe repercussions.
Persistent spread of fake and misleading information, circulation of morphed images of women, defamatory, sexually explicit and obscene content, news harming the integrity and security of India, etc. are tenaciously being circulated through social media. Social media and OTT platforms have also become a medium for broadcasting content that hurt the religious sentiments of particular communities due to which they encounter heavy backlash and criticisms from the concerned groups.
What changes do the new IT rules bring?
The profound concerns compelled the Indian Government to take some regulatory actions. Hence, the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITy) has framed the new IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) rules, 2021 under section 87(2) of the Information Technology Act 2000. These rules aim to balance the liberal freedom of expression with the dire need for favourable law and order situation.
The new rules empower ordinary users of social media, embodying a mechanism for redressal and timely resolution of their grievance. “It seeks to address peoples’ varied concerns while removing any apprehension about curbing creativity and freedom of speech and expression or violating the fundamental right of Right to Privacy” states the MEITy. Some of the noteworthy guidelines related to social media include-
- Establishing Grievance Redressal Mechanism,
- Ensuring online safety and dignity of users especially women,
- Appointment of Chief Compliance Officer, Nodal Contact Person, Resident Grievance Officer.
- Publishing a monthly compliance report mentioning details about complaints and the action taken.
- Identification of the first originator of the information in certain cases which disharmonizes the sovereignty, the integrity of India, friendly relations with foreign States, or incites sexually explicit content, child sexual abuse, etc.
WhatsApp vs Indian Government
The new IT rule primarily requires WhatsApp to trace a message to the original sender if the need arises. However, this is strictly against the End-to-End encryption policy of WhatsApp. The encryption assures the WhatsApp users that their chats are completely secured as no one (not even the company) can access them. This ensures safeguards for citizens, activists, politicians, journalists, etc to share their concerns and sensitive material that can be critical of the ruling dispensation.
WhatsApp has sued the Indian Government against this particular ‘traceability’ clause, seeking Delhi High Court to put a ban on these regulations. According to WhatsApp, this clause would compel the social media companies including WhatsApp to trace the “first originator of information”, which violates the privacy rights of the users. Tracing even a single message would mean breaking the end-to-end encryption.
Denying the WhatsApp’s allegations, IT Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, stated in a press conference that “Government of India very well recognises the Right to Privacy and is committed to ensuring the same to every citizen, but at the same time is also responsible to maintain law and order and to ensure national security.” He has clearly stated that “none of the measures would affect the ‘normal’ functioning of WhatsApp and also the originator of the information can only be traced in a scenario where other measures have proven to be ineffective. WhatsApp’s refusal to comply with the rules at the very last moment is a clear act of defiance of a measure whose intent can surely not be doubted.”
Twitter vs. Indian Government
Twitter has been facing the heat as well, as it had raised concerns about how these IT Rules are a threat to freedom of speech in India. Twitter, lately, has become a network that has linked the people globally for voicing out their opinions freely and also prompted many political movements in many countries. According to Twitter, the issue emanates from the conception that the Indian government may seek to put a lid on the condemning and dissenting opinions against the government through these IT rules.
The government reprehended Twitter’s statements claiming them as “totally baseless, false and an attempt to defame India.” It stated that the rules were worked out after the widest possible consultations with representatives of social media, invited comments from individuals, civil society and numerous organizations. “Twitter should stop beating around the bush and instead comply with the laws of the land”, stated the IT Minister.
On one hand, social media companies are finding the new IT Rules as a threat to the free speech and expression and violation of the ‘Right to Privacy’ of the common citizens in India. On the other hand, the government is tenaciously assuring that the implementation of these rules won’t impact the normal functioning of the platform nor it would violate the constitutionally sanctioned Right to Privacy.
Recently, Nigeria had banned Twitter after it removed a tweet by the President.
The Indian government is not the only country that has formulated the rules to curb the escalating social and digital media concerns, these rules have global precedence. Governments of the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand etc have alike opinions that the tech companies should include mechanisms in their software that enable governments to access the data in usable and readable format when needed. Lately, many incidents of the government in the power misusing such rules to limit or curtail the dissenting opinions can also not be ignored. There have been numerous instances in which the government has allegedly misused rules like these to finger-point and blame its opposition.
Hence, its for us to decide whether these IT Rules are a threat to the Fundamental Right of ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression’ or ‘Right to Privacy’, or is it a necessary measure to regulate the increasing Internet issues.
Read the article about the Tandav Controversy and Freedom of Expression.
Researched and Written by Aanchal Sahu, Team ulaunch.