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Tighter norms for social media firms in new rules

DECCAN CHRONICLE | Aditya Chunduru

Published on: December 22, 2019 | Updated on: December 22, 2019

The Software Freedom Law Centre, India (SFLC) hosted a roundtable discussion on the subject in Hyderabad on Friday and discussed privacy-related issues. (Representational Image)

Hyderabad: The Draft Intermediaries Guide-lines (Amendment) Rules 2018 under the Information Technology Act, which were announced in December last year, are expected to be notified in January. In their current form, if implemented, they will change the way internet works in this country.

The Software Freedom Law Centre, India (SFLC) hosted a roundtable discussion on the subject in Hyderabad on Friday and discussed privacy-related issues.

The participants, who included cybersecurity researchers and lawyers, noted that there were grave concerns about the guidelines. The discussion was non-attributable, ensuring confidentiality of participants. One on them said, "If internet platforms start being considered liable for all illegal content - as deemed by the government’s unclear definitions - there will be an impact on the proliferation of information on the internet. Everyone will be wary."

There are three key changes that are proposed in the guidelines. Firstly, intermediaries would be mandated to deploy "upload filters" on their platforms, thereby making pre-censorship compulsory. For instance, in the case of Twitter, the microblogging site would be required to inspect a user's tweet before he can post it. If this tweet is deemed ‘objectionable’, Twitter would not allow the user to post it at all. It may be noted that most platforms already have filtering mechanisms but their use has been based on their discretion. Also, this mandate would be a major blow for small players who do not have the tools to develop and deploy automatic filtering systems.

It may be noted that even large players such as Facebook have struggled to moderate their content. The social media giant has automatic moderation only in 40 languages worldwide. Only four of them are Indian (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Tamil), while for the rest, Facebook uses human moderators. The cost of developing automatic real-time filters would have many technological challenges.

Secondly, the guidelines require intermediaries to ensure traceability of content. For instance, in the case of WhatsApp, the company would be required to track a message (such as fake news posts) to its origin and share the details with law enforcement officials. This would make end-to-end encryption — a way to make data inaccessible to third parties — redundant.

Mr Ranjith Raj, a researcher and representative of Mozilla, told DC: "Encryption is not binary and the security levels are expressed in bits. Encryption in most platforms is in low levels that can be bypassed easily, even if the platforms boasted the world the opposite. As for these draft guidelines, arguments around traceability or the clause in data protection bill on user verification from social media companies is to move us to a surveillance dystopia, which is a way Indian corporates are using the government as a tool to gain access from platforms owned by American corporates." Lastly, intermediaries would be required to incorporate within India under the Companies Act 2013. The guidelines require platforms with more than five million users to set up shop in India. However, they fail to mention how these users would be counted: total users, monthly users, daily users and so on. A representative of a social media giant, who was also at the meeting, said that policy issues are largely being discussed by lawyers and analysts.

"It is important for us to speak to people in the tech world in cities like Hyderabad to really understand the implications of such guidelines," he said.