The fate of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp hang by a single thread as the new intermediary guidelines come into effect starting today. The Ministry of Electronics had announced new IT rules on February 25 and had given the social media platforms three months to comply with the new rules. However, none of the platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp has complied with the new law as of now. The entire fiasco has raised a lot of questions about whether the Indian government will get rid of the social media apps if they don't accept the new rules or not. While the chances of that happening are slim, there could be other factors that would change the course for the social media companies in India.
The government had not only set the rules for Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp and other social media apps but also for the OTT platforms including Netflix, Amazon Prime and others. While Netflix has complied with the new intermediary guidelines, the other companies are yet to submit their agreement. The reason why the companies are taking longer to accept the new rules is that it gives the government a lot of power to regulate companies dealing in information and content within India.
On February 25, the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITy) had announced new guidelines for the social media and OTT platforms. The IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had urged the companies to have a 'soft-touch oversight mechanism' and have a 'robust redressal of grievances." Prasad had said during a press conference that the social media platforms provide a voice to ordinary citizens, but such platforms should not be used to disseminate content that affects "individuals rights dignity" and privacy. The social media platforms were granted three months time to comply with the new policy.
What are the new rules?
The new IT rules say that if the social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp do not comply with the new guidelines, they will lose the protection that "intermediaries" get in under the IT Act. So what are the new rules, and why are companies taking so long to comply with them?
Under the new law, the big tech companies have been asked to appoint a chief compliance officer from India, who can cater to the demands of the government and address the issues raised by the government. For instance, If the government asks for user data from any of the social media apps, and if the demand is legal, the compliance officer will provide the data. Along with a compliance officer, the companies have also been asked to hire a nodal officer that will coordinate with the law enforcement authorities whenever required.
The companies have also been asked to include a special grievance redressal officer, who shall be responsible for addressing the issues of the social media users.
WhatsApp primarily has been asked to trace a message to the original sender if the need arises. However, this is strictly against the promises WhatsApp has made to its users. The app is end-to-end encrypted which means not even the company can access the chats of the users, but this new law would mean breaking or circumventing end-to-end encryption on messages. Appointing officers seem easier than complying with a request like this. The government had said that it would help in stoping the spread of fake news through platforms like WhatsApp.
Out of the many rules laid out by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITy), these are some of the major ones that would change how social media companies would function once they comply with the new guidelines.
Are WhatsApp, Facebook complying with the new rules?
While Facebook has said that it aims to comply with the provisions of the IT rules, WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against the government seeking a ban on regulations coming into force on Wednesday. As per a Reuters report, WhatsApp had asked the Delhi High Court to declare one of the rules as a violation of privacy rights because it forces the social media companies to trace the "first originator of information" when the government demands it. This law would compel WhatsApp to go against its own policy as the app is end-to-end encrypted. Tracing the originator of the message would mean circumventing the end-to-end encryption.
Talking about why WhatsApp is challenging the Indian government's IT rules, a WhatsApp spokesperson told, "Requiring messaging apps to 'trace' chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp, which would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermines people's right to privacy. We have consistently joined civil society and experts around the world in opposing requirements that would violate the privacy of our users. In the meantime, we will also continue to engage with the Government of India on practical solutions aimed at keeping people safe, including responding to valid legal requests for the information available to us."
Will Facebook, WhatsApp face a ban if they do not comply?
This brings us to the most important question will social media apps get banned in India if they don't comply with the new rules? The government has not clearly mentioned whether it will completely ban the social media apps or not but has talked about taking away the protection in the IT act.
"Where an intermediary fails to observe these rules, the provisions of sub-section (1) of section 79 of the Act shall not be applicable to such intermediary and the intermediary shall be liable for punishment under any law for the time being in force including the provisions of the Act and the Indian Penal Code," the government said.
To break it down for users, sub-section (1) of Section 79 of the IT Act gives protection to social media apps by making them "intermediaries". This saves the social media apps from being responsible for what the user is posting on social media. So as per the government, if the social media apps fail to comply with the new rules, they will lose the protection that "intermediaries" get in IT Act. The protection is extremely crucial for social media companies because once they lose it, they can be held responsible for the actions of the users and prosecuted using the laws that are applicable.
What are long terms effects?
For now, social media apps will continue to function. However, if it fails to comply with the new rules, the government will make decide the fate of the companies in India. The government might not entirely block the social media apps because they are a lot of factors involved but may levy a fine or stop the companies from doing business in India.
But for now, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are not going anywhere you may continue to use the apps just the way you were before the whole IT rules fiasco happened.
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