Rajat Sharma

New IT regulations for social media and OTT platforms are a welcome step

akbThe government on Thursday announced IT rules for social media giants like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google and YouTube and digital OTT platforms like Netflix, Disney Hotstar and others, with particular stress on self-regulation, followed by an Oversight Mechanism to be put in place by the Centre. This is a welcome and revolutionary step taken by the government for the first time since the explosion of news, views, entertainment and other content on social media platforms.

The rules allows freedom to all to express one’s views through news, articles and cinematic medium, but a strong ‘laxman rekha’ has been drawn for those who post toxic content on social media. Hate speeches, abusive comments, obscenity, anti-national content, rumours, lies and innuendoes against personalities, Constitutional functionaries and organizations, will invite swift retribution. The social media intermediaries will have to reveal the “originator” of unlawful content within 72 hours and take action against them.

The Supreme Court had directed the government to frame comprehensive regulations to ensure that social media intermediaries follow Indian laws and the Constitution. The new IT regulations mandates social media intermediaries to appoint compliance and grievance officers to look into complaints that are received from the public. Social media giants like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others can now no longer withhold information on the source of ulawful and inflammatory messaging beyond 72 hours from investigating agencies. They must be prompt in removing objectionable content, such as leakage of images or videos depicting nudity or sexual acts, relating to subscribers, particularly women. The social media platforms will now have to take down any unlawful content within a span of 36 hours, when asked through a court order or on being notified by the government or its agency.

Under the new IT regulations, intermediaries have been asked to appoint grievance officer, who should acknowledge a complaint within 24 hours, and resolve it within 15 days. They must also appoint Chief Compliance Officer and nodal contact person.

The new regulations describe objectionable content as those that threaten the security or sovereignty of India, disturb public order, defamatory, obscene pornographic paedophilic, invasive of another’s privacy, harmful to minors, infringes any patent, trademark, copyright or other proprietary rights.

For the entertainment industry, platforms like Netflix, Disney Hotstar and Amazon Prime will have to provide age-related classifications for their content, as part of the new IT rules. The content shall be divided into five categories – suitable for universal (U) viewing for ages 7 and above U/A 7+, for 13 years and above U/A 13+, for 16 years and above U/A 16+, and adult (A). The content classification shall also identify content on the basis of the themes and message, violence, nudity, sex, language, drug and substance abuse, and horror.

A Code of Ethics will be drawn up for publishers of news and current affairs content and publishers of online curated content to inform Information & Broadcasting Ministry about their details within 30 days of publication of rules, or in 30 days from the start of their India operations. Publishers will have to set up grievance redressal mechanism to receive complaints against content, send acknowledgement of grievance to the complainant within 24 hours, and decide on complaints within 15 days The publishers shall publish monthly compliance report containing details of grievances received and action taken.

Publishers who operate within India must set up three-tier structure of self-regulation (1) by publishers, (2) self-regulation by self-regulating bodies of publishers, and (3) oversight mechanism to be set up by the Centre. The I&B ministry will develop, publish, coordinate and facilitate adherence to Code of Ethics by publishers and self-regulating bodies. An Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) headed by an officer of Joint Secretary level will examine complaints and grievances. The iDC can recommend that the ministry should issue a warning or censure the publisher of intermediary, demand apology, or put up a warning card or disclaimer. The final decision will be taken by the I&B secretary on the basis of recommendations by IDC.

I have narrated details of the new IT rules, so that readers and viewers can have a clear picture of what is on the anvil. Till date, there had been no rules for social and digital media to follow, but from now on they will have to follow the rules and comply with orders.

The question that is being raised is whether the new IT rules will put fetters on the social media and curb freedom of speech and expression. Will they curb expression of dissent against the Centre? I want to make it clear, this is not a new law, it is a set of rules framed to guide and regulate the burgeoning social media, where peddling of lies, rumours, baseless news, abuse, incendiary comments, obscenity, nudity, threats and intimidation are rampant.

Let me compare the social and digital media with the news television industry. News channels in India have to follows a Code of Conduct which is part of the licence agreement. In addition to this the News Broadcasters Association(NBA) has established a self-regulation mechanism. National Broadcasting Standard Authority (NBSA) has been set up, presently chaired by retired Supreme Court judge Arjun Sikri, which goes through all complaints received from the general public, and censures or punishes news channels, if they violate the rules and regulations. NBSA is a self-regulatory body consisting of Justice Sikri and other eminent citizens. The only flaw that remains is that there are several news channels who are not members of NBA, and are therefore not bound to follow the Code of Conduct. The positive side is that most of the big and popular news channels are members of NBA and they follow the guidelines. Similar, the newspaper industry is regulated by Press Council of India, again headed by a retired Supreme Court judge. The PCI censure/admonishes/punishes newspapers that violates code of conduct for publishers.

In the social media, there are many so-called ‘news channels’ on YouTube and a plethora of digital news portals, that are not accountable to any authority. There is no forum for the common public, where one can air grievances or file complaints. Self-regulation and “oversight mechanism” by the government have now been introduced through the new IT rules.

Those who may raise question about curbs on freedom of speech and expression, should understand that the social media, till now, had been a fertile ground for mischief makers, who used to abuse, threaten or intimidate people through images, videos and texts, and even went to the extent of indulging in seditious activity. Even among the common public, say a man and a woman broke up their relationship, and the man posted obscene pictures to torment his ex-girlfriend. The woman and her family used to run from pillar to post, because social media intermediaries never took up such complaints or grievances. The new IT rules will put an end to this.
If a woman or her family members post their grievance, the content will now have to removed by the social media intermediaries within 72 hours.

On Thursday night in my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’, I interviewed IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on the new IT rules. He was emphatic on one point: the new IT rules will not put curbs on freedom of speech and expression, but the new regulations will catch all those who spread lies, innuendoes, baseless news and incendiary comments. Till now, it was very difficult to identify the “originator” of baseless news and lies, and big IT giants like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were unwilling to share the identify of the “originator”. With the enforcement of new IT rules, they will have to identify the mischief maker, so that security agencies can take action against those who spread incendiary content.

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