Deadline ends; aim to comply: Facebook

Facebook on Tuesday said it was working on the new rules, but indicated there were unresolved issues.
Signage at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, US.(Bloomberg)
Signage at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, US.(Bloomberg)
Published on May 26, 2021 12:13 AM IST
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By Deeksha Bhardwaj, New Delhi

The deadline for social media companies to put in place new mechanisms to comply with controversial new rules announced in February ended on Tuesday, and at least one company, Facebook, saying it was working on the new rules but that “a few of the issues need more engagement with the government”.

The rules pertain to new guidelines notified under the Information Technology Act on February 25, giving digital companies three months to implement new content moderation mechanisms, appoint new officers who will be liable for compliance, and adopt features such as traceability of messages and voluntary user verification.

Facebook on Tuesday said it was working on the new rules, but indicated there were unresolved issues. “We aim to comply with the provisions of the IT [Information Technology] rules and continue to discuss a few of the issues which need more engagement with the government. Pursuant to the IT Rules, we are working to implement operational processes and improve efficiencies,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

Twitter and WhatsApp did not respond to requests for a comment. Google, which recently issued an advertisement to hire a compliance officer, too did not respond to HT on Tuesday.

A ministry official said that the rules had been notified and no further discussions on those were happening. “There are always adjacent issues, these may be discussed, but the intermediary guidelines have already come into force,” this person said, asking not to be named.

On Monday, electronics and information technology ministry officials warned of stern action if the companies did not adhere to the deadline. This person said that none of the companies have informed the government of the compliance or shared details of the officers they were meant to have appointed on their websites.

A ministry representative did not elaborate on what actions the government was considering.

The new policy also includes bringing digital news publishers under the ambit of Section 69(A) of the Information Technology (IT) Act. The provision empowers the government to order the blocking of access to content that is considered a threat to public order.

An officer, who will head an inter-ministerial committee at the apex of the three-tier self-regulatory system, can also issue this order under emergency circumstances where the companies will not be given a chance for explanation. The committee will have to meet within 48 hours to ratify the emergency block.

The news media publishers and over the top (or streaming) such as Netflix and Hotstar, will fall under the ambit of the ministry of information and broadcasting. The ministry, under the guidelines, has sought details regarding the platforms but the form to furnish these has not been made available yet.

The rules also mandate increased due diligence by social media companies and data sharing, such as information about the first originator, with enforcement agencies. They define significant social media intermediaries as platforms that have five million users or more.

Experts said social media companies will not be banned if they do not meet the deadline. “That (ban) will not happen, as it is not what the provisions say,” said to NS Nappinai, Supreme Court lawyer and founder of Cyber Saathi. “Moreover, the platforms seem to be under the misapprehension that only by appointing a compliance officer they will become subject to India’s jurisdiction. They are already subject to the country’s laws and are bound to comply with them,” she said.

Nappinai added that there is no reason to assume that there will be an abuse of the guidelines. “The companies had three months to segregate what’s possible to comply with and what they may need additional time for,” she said. “To ask for the appointment of a compliance officer or grievance redressal officer is not too much to expect in a country of seven million users,” she said.

Internet Freedom Foundation trustee Apar Gupta said that the most significant impact of the guidelines will be on instant messaging applications. “That will require a companywide policy change,” Gupta said. “It will also be interesting to see what kind of immediate prosecution the ministry opts for, with the most tangible form emerging as the loss of intermediary status for the company. These new guidelines significantly undermine encryption and privacy.”

Under part four of the guidelines, the intermediaries are required to appoint compliance officers, “responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act and rules” and be “liable in any proceedings relating to any relevant third-party information, data or communication link made available or hosted by that intermediary where he fails to ensure that such intermediary observes due diligence while discharging its duties under the Act”.

Intermediaries are also required to appoint nodal contact persons for 24x7 coordination with law enforcement agencies and resident grievance officers.

India-made Twitter alternative Koo announced it had complied with the new requirements and appointed Rahul Satyakam as the resident grievance officer. The company has also appointed a chief compliance officer and nodal contact officer, and said it was only naming the grievance officer in keeping with the legal requirement.

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Sunday, October 24, 2021