Social Media Platforms vs Indian Government: Everything you need to know

As a result of India’s new social media rules which rolled out in February, various social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are under threat of closure if they fail to comply. Despite the centre’s new information technology regulations, several big names such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram haven’t met deadlines. That has led to speculation whether Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter can be banned in India because of this.

Koo, the Indian version of Twitter, is the only one to have so far accepted the guidelines, which were due to be accepted by May 25, but no other organizations have done so. In spite of the companies’ requests to delay implementation for six months, the rules will be effective as of May 26. So what’s happening? Are these platforms getting banned, will Telegram and Signal rise? Will the government bow to the needs of the silicon valley majors? 

What are the rules?

  1. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeITY) has rolled out a series of new rules providing for the appointment of Indian compliance officers for all social media platforms. In this position, the officer will be responsible for looking over all complaints received concerning the social media platform he is overseeing. Additionally, they will monitor the content and even have to remove any objectionable content. OTT platforms, as well as social media platforms, are subject to these rules.

  2. A significant social media intermediary is defined as one that has 50 lakh registered users or more, meaning companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google will have to conform to more rules.

  3. When the agency announced the guidelines in February, it had said that the new rules go into effect immediately, but that big social media platforms  (based on user numbers) would have three months to begin complying.

  4. Indian government statistics claim that 53 crore people use WhatsApp, 44.8 crore people watch YouTube, 41 crore people are on Facebook, 21 crore people use Instagram, and 1.75 crore people use microblogging site Twitter. Posts containing nudity or morphed images must be removed within 24 hours after a complaint is received by a social media platform.

  5. The removal of content by a significant social media intermediary will have to be announced in advance and explained. In such a case, users must be given an adequate and reasonable opportunity to challenge the action taken by the intermediary.

  6. Perhaps the most contentious issue at heart is the requirement for messaging apps to trace the source of the original information. This will also mean services like WhatsApp will need to break its end-to-end encryption globally for all users. 

  7. Social media platforms are also not to host or store content prohibited in the context of India’s sovereignty, integrity, defamation, and incitement to offense.

What are social media platforms and the government doing?

Nikhil Pahwa, founder of MediaNama and an activist for digital rights, had already indicated that the government would likely not enforce all these rules. “It is unlikely that the government would enforce all the provisions and hold social media platforms accountable unless it really needs to because the platforms could then move the court to challenge the guidelines,” he said. 

“We respect India’s legislative process and have a long history of responding to government requests to remove content where the content violates the local law or our product policies,” Google spokesperson said responding to the implementation of intermediary guidelines.

“We have consistently invested in significant product changes, resources, and personnel to ensure that we’re combating illegal content in an effective and fair way, and in order to comply with local laws in the jurisdictions that we operate in. We realize that our work in keeping our platforms secure is never done and we will continue to refine our existing approaches, and evolve our policies and be as transparent as possible about how we make decisions,” the spokesperson added.

Pahwa explained, the government would not want to give Facebook and Twitter a reason to go to court because these rules are “unconstitutional”, and the centre would not want to risk being embarrassed in courts. 

But that’s exactly what happened with WhatsApp suing the Indian government. Facebook-owned WhatsApp claimed that the new rules would end user privacy in a filing with the Delhi high court. 

“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,” WhatsApp, which has nearly 400 million users in India, said in a statement today.

“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,” said a spokesperson of the California-based Facebook unit.

WhatsApp’s petition asks the High Court to declare that the new rules are a violation of privacy under the constitution of India since it requires the platforms to identify the “first originator of the information” when asked for it. 

“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,” said a WhatsApp spokesperson to the Print indicating what the messaging platform is unwilling to change. 

WhatsApps parent Facebook however has indicated that it will follow the IT rules. An official Facebook spokesperson said in a statement, “We aim to comply with the provisions of the IT rules and continue to discuss a few of the issues which need more engagement with the government. According to the IT rules, we are working to implement operational processes and improve efficiencies. Facebook remains committed to people’s ability to freely and safely express themselves on our platform.”

As of now, there are no confirmations about a Facebook ban, Instagram ban, or  Twitter ban in India.  It has been reported that the Centre is displeased with the apathy shown by these platforms and that failure to adhere to the rules would result in the companies’ exclusion as intermediaries. As per Indian law, these companies may also be liable for criminal actions in some cases.

Social Media services such as Twitter have already been under fire. Over the last week, their offices in Delhi and Gurgaon were visited by police officials from the special cell. These so called raids were conducted after Twitter flagged “manipulated media” on posts that alleged a Congress plot to malign the ruling BJP government and PM Modi.  However, if these services end up not complying with the government rules, we do think that the government will make a move against them. 

What’s happening with Twitter is a great example as now a hashtag #BanTwitterIndia is also trending ironically on the platform itself, probably triggered by the legions of BJP supporters who are in the majority of the Indian right wing. This also comes after the unilateral banning of TikTok from India post the hostilities with China last year. The move might as well serve as a hint to other international companies across various fields to comply with the government to continue their operations in India.

In case that the government does decide to take action, which is highly unlikely, Instead of seizing the services in the country, the government might impose a fine for not complying on or before the due date. For instance, Turkey in the past banned social media companies from serving advertisements in the country. This followed a similar request from the Indian government to social media companies to introduce a compliance officer.

What does this mean? 

From WhatsApp’s point of view, this is quite straightforward: the government not only wants it to trace every message, it also wants it to break end-to-end encryption which entails a fundamental re-architecting of the platform. Considering its 2 billion plus global scale, it is unlikely for Facebook to agree to this monumental change even if the 530 million odd users from India constitute 25 per cent of all users in the platform. That’s why it has sued the Indian government citing the violation of the Indian constitution. 

But these rules will apply to any platform which has more than 5 million users in India. So if one believes that Signal and Telegram or even Apple’s iMessage will be spared from the rules in their current form, that’s unlikely. Telegram has amassed a huge following in India and globally has 500 million users. According to App Annie it is the 3rd most user social networking platform in India. 

Telegram and Signal both received a massive boost in their popularity following WhatsApps change in its privacy policy which controversially indicated a data sharing policy with parent Facebook. In January alone between 4-17th, Telegram recorded a whopping 9 million downloads while Signal had over 26 million downloads in India. But overall in the scheme of things this was a drop in the water. However, these numbers already indicate that the new rules will be applicable to them. 

Apple’s iMessage is pre-installed on iPhones, iPads and Mac computers. iPhones constitute for the majority of the phones sold upwards of the Rs 30,000 mark accounting for 48 per cent of the market share which means amongst liberals and people who have a high income, it could be rather widely used even in a market like India where Apple commands less than 5 percent of the market. 

In the recent past, people have become more accurately aware of privacy issues, especially in the wake of the shaheen bagh protests, the internet blockage in Jammu and Kashmir, and the general aggressive reaction of the government against any kind of descent. With the second wave of the pandemic, the Modi government has also come increasingly under fire from all quarters including international media and it wants laws in place to control the dissemination of information so that it can control the narrative around any kind of negativity. 

Privacy activists have increasingly batted for fully encrypted messaging services. Generally, the world of big tech is being policed more actively as well. That’s also one of the core reasons why the government of India is testing the limits of the law to put these irksome platforms under its control. The government is unlikely to win this battle, but it keeps on pushing the limits of the law, and that’s why there are fears of these platforms getting banned.

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