India issues new guidelines to regulate digital, social media

By Sarwar Kashani

Srinagar, India, Feb 25 (EFE).- India on Thursday unveiled a set of new guidelines that will allow the government to regulate digital content and assert more control over online news portals, social media and video-streaming platforms.

The new rules, which will have far-reaching ramifications for digital content in the country, make it obligatory for tech firms to quickly remove any unlawful content and assist in probing its origin.

The guidelines have revived the self-regulation versus censorship debate in a country labeled “partly free” by Freedom House watchdog on the global internet freedom index.

Federal ministers Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters that the new rules would set up a “soft touch progressive institutional mechanism with level-playing field.”

The guidelines require tech companies to appoint a chief compliance officer, an executive for coordinating on law enforcement, and a “grievance redressal officer”.

The move would establish a code of ethics and a three-tier grievance redressal framework for news sites and video-streaming platforms – commonly known as over-the-top (OTT) players -, the minister said in a news conference streamed live.

Online streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, which have faced complaints in India for obscenity, will be subjected to a three-tie oversight mechanism – self-regulation by the publishers, self-regulation by the self-regulating bodies of the publishers, and oversight mechanism for self-classification of content.

According to the rules, OTT platforms must self-classify their content into five categories based on age: U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult).

They will also be required to implement parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher.

Digital platforms will now have to trace the first originator of messages “required only for the purposes of prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution or punishment of an offense related to sovereignty and integrity of India,” according to the guidelines.

Content can also be deemed contentious or mischievous if it harms “the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order.”

The rules go against end-to-end encryption claims by messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Signal.

“Who began the mischief, you have to say,” Information Technology Minister Prasad said, adding it would apply for creating any contentious content for which the punishment is up to five years.

Social media sites will have to remove offensive or illegal content or message or disable the originator within 36 hours of being notified or after a court order.

The move, which goes against end-to-end encryption protocols of messaging apps like WhatsApp or Signal, will help track people spreading fake news or carrying out illegal activities.

“Social media is welcome to do business in India. But users must also be given a proper forum for resolution of their grievances in a time-bound manner against abuse and misuse of social media,” Prasad said.

The non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation said the new regulations were against India’s constitutional freedom of speech.

“Given that it seeks to now even regulate digital news platforms and OTT content providers, we recommend a fresh consultation and greater transparency,” the watchdog said in its comments on its website.

“Several proposals in their present form suffer from unconstitutionality and will undermine free expression and privacy for internet users in India.”

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