Social media: IT and law ministries to sort out differences over norms

By: |
March 1, 2020 3:15 AM

MeitY was expected to place the final guidelines before the Supreme Court on or before January 15, but it sought time from the court till the last week of January but did not meet this deadline.

The PDP Bill, which was placed before Parliament on December 11, 2019, is being vetted by a joint parliamentary committee.

As the stand-off between ministries of law and electronics & IT (MeitY) over the intermediary guidelines continues, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has directed top officials from both ministries to meet on priority basis to thrash out the differences and finalise the much-awaited norms. Intermediaries are basically social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc, which carry user-generated content, as well as sponsored content.

MeitY was expected to place the final guidelines before the Supreme Court on or before January 15, but it sought time from the court till the last week of January but did not meet this deadline. Sources said the draft is lying with the law ministry. Draft intermediary guidelines were shared with the law ministry by MeitY a few weeks back.

“Law ministry feels that work done by MeitY on the guidelines is commendable, but a section of the ministry is of the view that some of the stringent amendments like traceability or flagging user and non-user content could be left out. Their point is that the government is already in the process of finalising the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill, which will deal with all these aspects, including data localisation,” a source said.

The PDP Bill, which was placed before Parliament on December 11, 2019, is being vetted by a joint parliamentary committee. However, MeitY feels that draft guidelines are important as the menace of fake and adulterated content is growing larger by the day and the government needs to have a mechanism to deal with such issues till the time the Bill is cleared by Parliament.

“There is unnecessary criticism over traceability. There is tech that any message, when it is sent out first, can have a watermark that travels with it. Now, law enforcement agencies can have the algorithm which can read that watermark and find out which phone generated it. This is doable and it would not complicate or compromise their architecture and machinery. Government is not violating privacy or breaking any encryption,” a senior government official explained.

Draft intermediary guidelines, released in December 2018, have not found much favour with intermediaries like social media platforms and tech companies. Those opposing the guidelines say that directing intermediaries to prohibit publication of content that threatens public health or safety may violate the right to free speech under Article 19(1).

Also, for intermediaries to deploy automated tools for removing access to unlawful content could be contrary to the reasoning of a recent Supreme Court judgment on user privacy. Another point of contention is that intermediaries with more than 50 lakh users must incorporate a company in India. It is not clear as to how this number will be calculated. These have not gone down well with social media and tech companies as well as a section of civil society.

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