Govt readying stringent rule book to curb fake news on Internet

This new guideline will be a significant move as it will make Google, Whatsapp, Facebook and the likes accountable for actively taking part in creating or modifying information rather than just being termed as mere intermediaries that act as facilitators

by exchange4media Staff
Published - Aug 24, 2018 9:00 AM Updated: Aug 24, 2018 9:00 AM

As India gets stringent about Internet safety in the wake of Whatsapp fake news causing mob lynching, media reports suggest that the Union government is likely to introduce new guidelines by September to heighten the accountability of internet and social media companies under Indian law. This will ensure they react quickly to stop the spread of rumours or offensive content on their platforms.

The stringent move will introduce fresh clauses under existing intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, reported certain sections of the media. A legal firm is already said to be vetting the guideline draft, which should be out by September.

The new guidelines will make it compulsory for global internet and social media firms to name a grievance officer in the country who will have to respond to complaints within a few hours, apart from ensuring traceability of content.
Though the intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the 2011 IT Act mandates companies to follow “due diligence” and allowed time up to 36 hours for companies to remove objectionable content and name a grievance officer on its website for response, these guidelines were not stringently enforced.

This new guideline will be a significant move as it will make Google, Whatsapp, Facebook and the likes accountable for actively taking part in creating or modifying information rather than just being termed as mere intermediaries that act as facilitators. The government can then take the guideline to the erring party saying that it is not following the rulebook. This will also have far reaching implications on message traceability, particularly Whatsapp’s end-to-end encryption and text messages on cellular networks. How (and if) it will have an effect on Facebook’s news feed still remains to be seen.

Meanwhile there is also the potential violation of the Supreme Court’s past verdict during the 2015 Shreya Singhal judgement if this new guidebook comes into practice. Before 2015, GoI restricted freedom of speech for avoiding self-harm and misuse. This allowed arrest of any person which the law per see as harmful or misuse. In 2012, Singhal, an Indian born lawyer, filed a PIL in the Supreme Court of India against the Act and in 2015, the Court struck down Section 66A of IT Act 2000. This was hailed as a major step in the country's quest for freedom of speech and expression.

WhatsApp Rejects Government’s Plea

In a latest development, social media platform WhatsApp has rejected India's demand for a solution to track the origin of messages on its platform, saying building traceability would undermine end-to-end encryption and affect privacy protection for users.

According to media reports, a WhatsApp spokesperson said, “Building traceability would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse. WhatsApp will not weaken the privacy protections we provide. People rely on WhatsApp for all kinds of sensitive conversations, including with their doctors, banks and families. Our focus remains working closer with others in India to educate people about misinformation and help keep people safe.”

WhatsApp Head, Chris Daniels had met IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad earlier this week. After the meeting, Prasad told reporters that the government has asked WhatsApp to set up a local corporate entity and find a technology solution to trace the origin of fake messages circulated through its platform and appoint a grievance officer. He was stern that WhatsApp could face abetment charges if it did not take action to tackle the issue of fake news being circulated on its platform.

Daniels had declined to comment on the proceedings after the meeting.

India is the largest market for WhatsApp with a base of over 200 million users of the over 1.5 billion global user base. With general elections slated to be held next year in India, the government is taking a stern view of use of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp for spread of misinformation.

The Indian government has served two notices to the Facebook-owned company seeking details of actions it has taken to curb the menace. In its response, WhatsApp had informed that it is building a local team, including having an India head, and has introduced new features to let its users identify forwarded messages.

WhatsApp has also restricted the number of forwards that can be done at a time. Besides, the company is also running advocacy and education programmes to help people spot fake news.

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