By Kanishk Gaur
The data sovereignty debate seems to be taking a new path with the government announcing new guidelines for intermediaries, making it compulsory for messaging platforms and digital publishers, aggregators of content with a significant presence in India (fifty lakh plus registered users) to comply to these guidelines. The timing seems timid given the social media battle between the state and protestors of three farm bills.
While the government intends to tackle fake news, misinformation, and online harms seriously, storage of information will create new security and third party risks. The guidelines aim to bring a sense of ownership, responsibility, and accountability for those aggregating news.
The new guidelines will also impact messaging, with new rules mandating platforms to trace the first originator. However, traceability may be tougher to implement than envisaged.
Traceability of over 40 crore messaging platform users could open a pandora’s box? Given that the country has no privacy laws in place, any breach of consumer data held by intermediaries would expose Indian consumers’ metadata, making them vulnerable to device-level hijacking by unknown state or state-sponsored actors?
While the mandate to intermediaries to deploy technology-based measures to fight online harms is a welcome move, the real challenge will be to get platforms like Telegram and Signal to implement these, given they don’t collect any form of metadata or incorporate AI to detect material.
Another key challenging aspect for intermediaries will be changing the current end-to-end encryption standard. Complying to guidelines will require fingerprinting of messages without compromising users’ chat content?
Traceability of the first originator will require private messaging apps to retain more data on users’ texts, including metadata about messages that many platforms currently delete. They would now need to store hash values of messages for a large number of users. All of this will require intermediaries to implement new-age monitoring, big data analytics tools which use AI and machine learning algorithms; this could mean significant operational costs. The timeline set by the government are unreasonable to set up an infrastructure to monitor such large user content.
The general principles of online curated content for publishers are vague. Publishers also need to determine whether the content can be detrimental to India’s friendly relations with foreign countries. Which means online curated content needs to be aligned to government foreign policy objective? This will have serious repercussions as the government’s foreign policy objective is more dependent on the ruling party in power. Curbing freedom of expression of digital media could mean the government advocating its policy objectives through state-controlled media.
Content classification for a publisher of online curated content is a welcome step, however, how the government makes digital content publishers implement this will be an area to watch out for.
The author is founder, India Future Foundation. Views are personal