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Modi govt tightens noose on social media giants and ‘intermediaries’: What it means, the effects of the provisions and how it could tame the beast

The union government refused to bring censorship for OTT platforms and made provisions for classifying movies and shows for various age groups

Amid the growing demand for controlling content on OTT platforms and social media, the government of India has come up with guidelines for both of them. On Thursday, the union government announced its new guidelines for digital news organisations, social media platforms and OTT platforms.

Social media

The guidelines published by the IT ministry contains comprehensive guidelines for social media platforms, which has been defined as ‘social media intermediaries’ which primarily or solely enables online interaction between two or more users and allows them to create, upload, share, disseminate, modify or access information using its services.

The new guidelines say that the intermediaries must publish rules and regulations, privacy policy and user agreement prominently on their websites. It holds significance given the controversies surrounding privacy and user data at several social media platforms, especially Facebook and its WhatsApp.

Contents not to be allowed on social media

According to the guidelines, the social media platforms will have to inform the users that they can’t publish content belonging to others, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, invasive of another’s privacy, insulting or harassing on the basis of gender, libellous, racially or ethnically objectionable. Social media users also can’t publish content that is harmful to minors, infringes patent, trademark etc, violates any law, deceiving or misleading and impersonates someone else. Users also can’t pose content that threatens the unity of the country, which contains software virus, and is patently false and untrue.

The guidelines make it clear that the social media platforms have to abide by any court order or government direction, and have to provide any information that is asked from time withing a given time period.

Classification of social media

The new guidelines classify the social media platforms in two categories, significant social media intermediary and other intermediary. The guidelines say that ‘significant social media intermediary’ means a social media with users above such threshold as may be notified by the Central Government.

The guidelines contain additional responsibilities for “significant social media intermediary”, which means major platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

It says that such platforms have to appoint a Chief Compliance Officer who shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act and rules made under it. They also have to appoint a nodal person of contact for 24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies and officers. Apart from this, they also have to appoint a Resident Grievance Officer, to handle user grievances.

The following provisions also apply only for significant social media intermediaries.

Identity of first originator of objectionable content

The most important guideline regarding is that it virtually bans anonymous accounts, as it says that the social media platforms must enable the identification of the first originator of the information. It means, the platforms may require to provide an identity proof, to comply with this order. If some information has originated outside India, the first person in India who shared that information will be considered as the first originator.

However, the identity of the first originator will be required only if the information shared violates a law that attracts jail term of five years or more. This means, for social media posts that threaten the sovereignty and integrity of India, friendly relations with other nations, public order, and offences related to rape, child sexual abuse material etc, the identity of the originator will have to be revealed.

The guidelines also ask the platforms to deploy technology measures such as automated bots to identify such content. The companies also may implement human oversight mechanisms in this regard.

The guidelines make it clear that the steps taken to identify social media users will have consider the rights of free speech and privacy.

Paid posts

Another important guideline is regarding marketing and promotions done on social media, as the guideline says the social media intermediaries have to clearly mark such content as advertisement, promotion etc. This may have a significant impact on social media influencers and celebrities, who often post promotional material disguised as personal opinion in return for payment.

Voluntarily verification of accounts

While most social media platforms have mechanism to very the accounts of users, it is arbitrary, and it depends on the whims and fancies of the officials of the companies. Verification of a social media account means that it actually belongs to the person or entity that it claims to be. Now the guidelines issued by the ministry makes provisions for voluntary verification of accounts by the users.

Removal or disabling of information

The guidelines say that if social media platforms remove or disable any information, they much give the originator of the information a notification explaining the action being taken and the grounds or reasons for such action. The user also must be given an adequate and reasonable opportunity to dispute the action being taken by such intermediary. This will change the current scenario when social media sites, especially Twitter, suspends accounts without giving any opportunity to defend.

Social media sites also have to ensure that such actions are based on an assessment of the relevant context of the information, and they must display a notice stating the action taken by them, and the grounds or reasons for such action.

If the social media platforms fail to comply with the above-mentioned measures, then the safety net provided to them by disassociating them from the content published on their platforms will be removed. It means, if any platform does not comply with this rules, they will be held responsible for any content published on their platforms that violates any law, and the officials of such social media platforms will be prosecuted for such content.

Digital media

Apart from social media, the government also have issued guidelines for digital media platforms. Such Digital portals will have to comply with a code of ethics which has been notified along with the guidelines. It prescribes three-levels of regulation for digital portals, which are self-regulation by the entity, self-regulation by the self-regulating body of the applicable entities, and oversight mechanism by the Central Government.

For this purpose, the digital media houses will have to appoint a Grievance Redressal Officer based in India, and they will have to come together to establish a self-regulatory body headed by a retired Supreme Court or High Court judge. For the third level, the ministry will develop an Oversight Mechanism, which will include an Inter-Departmental Committee for hearing grievances

The government will also establish an online grievance portal, where complaints and grievances regarding any content published by digital media sites can be submitted. The concerned entity will have to respond to such complaints, and if the complainant is not satisfied with the response, the same can be escalated to the concerned self-regulating body and then the central government.

Significant publishers of news and current affairs

The guidelines also include separate provisions for ‘significant publishers of news and current affairs’, which means media entities with 5 lakh subscribers or 50 lakh followers on any significant social media platform. Such media platforms will have to notify the Broadcast Seva that it is operating in the territory of India, by furnishing the information that may be required on the Broadcast Seva by the Ministry.

Guidelines for streaming platforms

The government also have issued guidelines for online entertainment platforms. The guidelines prescribed appropriate self-classification of the shows, instead of directing any censorship. It says that the streaming platforms will have rate content in three categories, U- Universal, U/A, and A- Adult.

The U category means it is suitable for all age groups. The U/A group has been further divided into different categories, which are U/A – General, which is suitable for all but may contain scenes not suitable for young children; U/A – 7+, suitable for 7 years and above, U/A – 13+, and U/A – 16+. An A category movie or show can be watched by people aged 18 years and above only. Shows and movies containing nudity without any sexual context can be rated as U/A 16+.

The guidelines say that content on such platforms should take into account the potentially offensive impact of matters such as caste, race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality which may be depicted in such streaming shows. The ratings of the shows will depend on the language used, the depiction of sex and nudity, fear, threat and horror, and violence. Such a rating of shows and movies, instead of censoring them like what is done in case of films in India, is the international practice.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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OpIndia Staff
OpIndia Staff
Staff reporter at OpIndia

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