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New rules leave social media users vulnerable: Experts

They analyse the implications of the government vs Twitter controversy on individual privacy
Last Updated : 10 June 2021, 09:53 IST
Last Updated : 10 June 2021, 09:53 IST

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Torsha Sarkar
Torsha Sarkar
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Twitter has accepted one of a set of contentious new government regulations by naming an Indian lawyer as its grievance officer.

The government had notified the changes on February 25, and allowed social media companies three months to comply. Twitter and WhatsApp had then separately approached the Delhi High Court against the new regulations, fearing they could compromise user privacy.

On Monday, the court gave Twitter three weeks to file a response to the government’s charge that it had not appointed a grievance officer as claimed.

Vague rules

Karthik Srinivasan, communications consultant, who uses his blog Beast of Traal to comment on social media, says the new rules are “vague and open-ended”.

“Coupled with the fact that we still do not have a data protection law, the rules could be severely misused both by government and private entities,” he says.

Users are particularly vulnerable in a country where anything and everything offends a lot of people, he says.

Law overreach

Torsha Sarkar, researcher with the Centre for Internet and Society, says the rules introduce additional obligations for social media platforms and classify intermediaries.

“Intermediaries with over five million users would have obligations to introduce traceability, instal automated filtering, provide detailed grievance redressal mechanisms, and publish compliance reports detailing action taken on takedown orders,” she says.

While some of these obligations are similar to those laid down internationally, some alterations are causing concern. The traceability requirement, for example, is highly contentious as it would erode user privacy.

“It is also concerning that the user threshold, for a country like India, with such vast Internet usage, is set at a very low level. This means that even smaller social media platforms might be compelled to carry out economically crippling obligations,” she explains.

The legislative overreach is seen in how the initial draft, which only covered entities like Twitter and Facebook, now seeks to cover digital news media and content curators like Netflix and Hulu, she says.

Stretching the scope of the legislation this way is undemocratic since it was not subject to any public consultation, she notes.

Case in High Court

Mishi Choudhary, technology lawyer and founder of SFLC.in, a legal services organisation specialising in law, technology and policy, says the IT rules notified by the government are unconstitutional. “In the garb of addressing misinformation and regulating technology companies, the government has been exceeding the powers granted through subordinate legislation and using it for political purposes,” she says. It is on these grounds that the Free and Open Source Software community has challenged the new rules in the Kerala High Court. “Technology companies need regulation but not at the expense of user rights,” she says.

Congress ‘toolkit’ row

A few weeks after social media platforms were asked to take down posts critical of the government’s management of India’s Covid-19 crisis, Twitter once again found itself at the receiving end. Last week, Twitter labelled a tweet by BJP leader Sambit Patra, accusing the Congress of working with a ‘toolkit, as ‘manipulated media’. Twitter says it gives the label to tweets that include media (videos, audio, and images) that are “deceptively altered or fabricated”. The Delhi police then sent a notice to Twitter in connection and asked the micro-blogging site to explain the reasons for assigning the tag. The police also conducted raids on Twitter offices in India. Things escalated when Twitter said the government was intimidating it. The government hit back saying law-making was its privileges, and Twitter, being a social media platform, should not dictate legal policy framework.

New rules

Under the new IT rules, social media companies like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter will be responsible for identifying the originator of a flagged message within 36 hours.

They also have to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact person and a resident grievance officer. Failing to comply with these rules would cause the platforms to lose their status as intermediaries, and make them liable for whatever is posted on their platforms.

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Published 03 June 2021, 16:34 IST

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