Will finalise digital media rules in 3 months: Govt to Supreme Court

The rules on the so-called intermediary liability — many digital platforms, including Facebook and WhatsApp, insist they are intermediaries and can’t regulate content — become important in the context of tackling hate speech, fake news, and other unlawful activities.
On September 24, the Supreme Court also said the rules should strike a balance between state sovereignty and an individual’s privacy.(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
On September 24, the Supreme Court also said the rules should strike a balance between state sovereignty and an individual’s privacy.(Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)
Published on Oct 22, 2019 02:10 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByHT Correspondent

The Union government on Monday said it will finalise and also notify rules for social media and digital media platforms by January 2020.

The rules on the so-called intermediary liability — many digital platforms, including Facebook and WhatsApp, insist they are intermediaries and can’t regulate content — become important in the context of tackling hate speech, fake news, and other unlawful activities.

The draft rules are ready, the government told the Supreme Court, but these need to be discussed with other ministries and also vetted by the law ministry.

In an affidavit filed in the apex court, the ministry of electronics and information technology said that considering the “complexity of the matter and the significant impact it entails on the functioning of all stakeholders, including netizens, various government departments/ministries, social media platforms, messaging platforms, websites and mobile apps etc., a conscious and bona fide decision was taken by the respondent ministry to call for further inter-ministerial consultation so that effective, robust and comprehensive rules, covering all aspects of matter can be framed. And notification of new the Information Technology Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules, 2018 is likely to be completed by 15 January 2020.” The government’s filing was a response to a September 24 instruction by the apex court, asking it to file an affidavit within three weeks on the timeline for drafting regulations for social media companies.

“The government affidavit is non-committal about the amendments and decision... however they have given a definitive timeline. We are hoping that no observations are made by SC on these guidelines, before they are released as there may be serious privacy ramifications,” said Supreme Court advocate Udayaditya Banerjee.

The Government defines intermediaries as telecom service providers, network service providers, internet service providers, web-hosting service providers, search engines, e-payment sites, e-auction sites, e-market places and cyber cafes.

On September 24, the court also said the rules should strike a balance between state sovereignty and an individual’s privacy. Central government advocate Rajat Nair informed the court about the affidavit. The case will be taken up for further hearing on Tuesday.

A bench of justices Deepak Gupta and Aniruddha Bose passed the September 24 direction while dealing with the petition filed by Facebook seeking the transfer of a batch of petitions pending in the Madras, Bombay and Madhya Pradesh high court wherein petitioners had sought linking of Aadhaar or other official identity cards with social media accounts on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp to prevent criminal elements taking advantage of social media to carry out their activities.

A spokesperson for Facebook refused to comment saying the matter was sub-judice.

Stressing the importance of having these guidelines, the affidavit said: “Internet has emerged as a potent tool to cause unimaginable disruption to the democratic polity, it was felt that the extant rules to be revised for effective regulation of intermediaries keeping in view the ever growing threats to individual rights and nation’s integrity, sovereignty, and security.”

Some analysts are of the view that social media companies function like mainstream media companies when it comes to business (advertising is the main revenue stream for such companies) but are loath to exercise the editorial judgement that media companies do, or take responsibility for their content.

Last month, the court expressed the necessity to identify the originator of a fake news message that triggers violence, is a potential risk to the country’s security or defames individuals.

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