New IT rules only to tackle misuse of social media, give users redressal mechanism, says Ravi Shankar Prasad

On the issue of tracing the originator of WhatsApp messages, the Minister asserted that ordinary users of WhatsApp have nothing to fear.

June 06, 2021 03:36 pm | Updated 09:21 pm IST

Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. File

Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. File

Amid Twitter and WhatsApp pushing back against the government’s new rules for social media platforms, IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the rules only benefit the over 100 crore users of such platforms by giving them a means to address their grievances.

“...These are basically the rights of the users against misuse[of social media platforms]. Any robust democracy which allows freedom of speech and expression, must also allow a forum for redressal of complaints,” Mr. Prasad said.

The Minister again stressed that these platforms will have to abide by the laws in India.

“Social media users can criticise Narendra Modi, they can criticise government policy, and ask questions. I must put it on record straight away... I have been in this post for nearly seven years now… the way social media has empowered ordinary Indians is a matter of great assurance... But a private company sitting in America should refrain from lecturing us on democracy when you are denying your users the right to effective redressal forum,” he said.

The new rules for intermediaries such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Google. Twitter and Telegram, come into effect on May 26, and the Minister added that most platforms have submitted their compliance to ‘The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021’.

Rules give redressal mechanism to users, says Prasad

With Twitter and WhatsApp up in arms against the government’s new guidelines for social media platforms , IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad  told The Hindu  these guidelines are to deal with the issue of misuse of such platforms. He stressed that these rules only give a redressal mechanism to the users, with complaints to be handled between the users and the social media intermediary.

The government, he said, is not involved. On the issue of tracing the originator of WhatsApp messages , the Minister said ordinary users of WhatsApp have nothing to fear. “I am giving my word,” he said. 

Edited Excerpts:

Some social media firms have raised concern over the clause relating to employees being jailed under the new Rules

As per the Rule 4(A), social media platforms need to appoint a chief compliance officer who shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act and the rules thereunder and shall be liable in any proceeding relating to third party information where he/she fails to make sure that due diligence was followed by the intermediary.

The failure to observe due diligence is a precondition for starting an action. The Rules add that no liability will be imposed upon the significant social media intermediary, without being granted an opportunity to be heard. So, all safeguards are there. If intermediaries are already assuming that they will not follow due diligence, that is their fault. If they have the intention not to pursue due diligence, there will be consequences.

Also read: As new IT rules come into force on May 26, Facebook says it aims to comply

Similarly, removal of content is also preceded by precondition. Intermediaries shall remove or disable access within 24 hours of receipt of complaints of contents that expose the private areas of individuals, show such individuals in full or partial nudity or in sexual act or is in the nature of impersonation including morphed images etc. Such a complaint can be filed either by the individual or by any other person on his/her behalf...What is in this? For removal of content via government orders, there is already a process under Section 69(A) under the IT Act.

The issue is not of use, but misuse and abuse of these platforms, and do the victims of abuse have a forum or not. And we [government] are out of it. This is between the social media platforms and their users who are the victims of abuse.

Also read: New IT rules | Centre seeks compliance report from intermediaries

The Rules came into effect on May 26, what action will be taken for non-compliance?

What action I will take or the department will take is not to be debated in a public interview. Leave it to us. We will decide within the full confines of the governance process. Let me reiterate: They are supposed to follow the rules. These rules are for the good of their users only. It is unacceptable that they will earn good revenue here, with which we have no quarrel, but if any helpless victim is having an issue with misuse, they should go to America. When a distraught mother approaches me saying that her daughter’s ex-boyfriend is circulating intimate photographs of the girl, what should I do? Ask her to complain to America, as Twitter says? This scenario is not acceptable.

These laws have not come suddenly. These were work in progress for three-four years. There were two court orders, command of Parliament and demand of the civil society, followed by large-scale consultation. 

Will this issue impact India’s image, particularly in terms of doing business?

No. Many companies have complied with the rules. These are not the question of any image of a country, these are basically the rights of the users against misuse. Any robust democracy which allows freedom of speech and expression, must also allow a forum for redressal of complaints, which is what these guidelines are.

The Rules are very clear. They have to appoint India-based employees — a grievance redressal officer, compliance officer and a nodal officer to coordinate with the government. Are we asking for the moon? Do they need a UPSC-type exam to make these appointments? As an interim measure, they can relocate one of their employees here.

When Indian IT companies go to do business in America, do they follow the laws or not? Indian pharma companies go for manufacturing in America, do they follow the American laws or not? There will be no compromise on the digital sovereignty of India.

The Government and WhatsApp have been at loggerheads over the issue of originator of messages for over two years, and now they have gone to the court, citing privacy concerns.

Ordinary users of WhatsApp have nothing to fear. I am giving my word. Messages between friends, doctor-patient, lawyer-clients, media-source, girlfriend-boyfriend… all these private messages will continue unhindered in the encrypted format. What we are seeking is when a message that is already in circulation has gone viral, is causing riots, mob lynching, terrorism, impinging upon security and safety of India, and showing a woman being raped or in nudity or child abuse...only in these defined cases, security agencies can ask please explain who started this. That’s all. The content is already in the public domain.

I want to touch upon what privacy is? The Supreme Court itself has said privacy principles have certain exemptions...terrorists, a criminal or a corrupt person cannot have a right of privacy, otherwise no investigation can be done...In my very considered view, privacy means the core of your existence... your sexual preferences, your matrimonial relationship, relationship among family members, your private correspondence, your medical records, your property if you’re not a public servant. The right of a minor… These are the recognised nuances of privacy.

And the problems of technology can be solved by technology. It is their [WhatsApp’s] responsibility… When during the Cambridge Analytica issue , the data of over 5 lakh Indians was leaked by them [Facebook], where was privacy? In their latest privacy policy, they are saying that users’ data will be shared with the business associates. Where is the privacy there? Therefore, if the details are being sought which are in reasonable classification and in public interest, why are you debating about it? Are they not giving it in many foreign countries?

WhatsApp has said they will wait till the personal data protection bill comes. What is the progress on that?

The select committee has given their report and have done a good job. Covid-permitting, in the next session I will like to push it.

India has a great potential to become a data economy. We generate huge amounts of data because of our population. Let me proudly assert that our data protection law very clearly enjoins no data can be taken from anyone without his consent voluntarily. The processor of data must use it only to the extent consented.

Google has sought protection against the IT guidelines saying it is a search engine and not an intermediary

Let us not take shelter under technicalities. Is it not the moral obligation of the platform by whatever name it goes to respect the dignity of women whose naked, morphed images are circulated? Should there not be a mechanism that we will not pick up any such content unless we are shown that there is an element of consent for public consent. It is a moral as well as social obligation of these social media firms.

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