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India clamps strict rules for social media companies, OTT platforms

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In a turn of events that was widely expected in the light of the spat between  India and Twitter, the government today released a slew of new guidelines to regulate social media companies, OTT streaming services, digital news outlets, among others.

And lest the message is lost, the government said in as many words that  ‘double standards of social media will not be acceptable’.

The government has come out with a 30-page document, titled Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

Principally, all social media platforms will be banned from allowing content that affects “the sovereignty and integrity of India” and that which "threatens national security," the definition of which is always ambiguous.

And OTT platforms would also come under watch and cannot get away with the no-censorship regimen that they enjoy now.

The guidelines will kick into effect for small firms immediately, but bigger players will be provided three months to comply.

Social media companies have to be more accountable

In a press conference addressed by two Ministers, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javdekar, announced the Digital Media Ethics Code to broadly govern the various types of platforms (social, news and entertainment).

“Social media is welcome to do business in India. They have done exceedingly well. They have got a good number of users. They have also empowered Indians. We commend this,” Prasad said.

However, it was made clear that social media companies would be required to acknowledge takedown requests of unlawful content within 24 hours and deliver a complete redressal in within 15 days. In sensitive cases that surround rape or other similar criminal cases, firms will be required to take down the objectionable content within 24 hours.

The government has also called for social media companies to have a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact officer, who shall be reachable round the clock, and a resident grievance officer. They will also have to set up a local office in India.

Originator of objectionable content to be disclosed

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"Concerns have been raised about rampant abuse of social media platforms, spread of fake news. Social media intermediaries have to appoint grievance officer, who shall registered complaints in 24 hours," Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

Social media firms also need to figure out the originator of objectionable content. “We don’t want to know the content, but firms need to be able to tell who was the first person who began spreading misinformation and other objectionable content,” the Minister said. 

For platforms like WhatsApp, which are end-to-end encrypted, this could mean they will be forced to break encryption, something which they are loath to do.

The companies will also need to put out compliance report every month revealing the number of requests they received and what actions they took. They will also be required to offer a voluntary option to users who wish to verify their accounts.

Content involving nudity, morphed pictures of women have to be removed in 24 hours, the government said.

Content on OTT platforms have to be classified

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With regard to OTT platforms, the draft rules called for films and web-based serial to have a “classification rating” to describe content and advise discretion.

The OTT platforms would have to self-classify the content into five age based categories- U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult). Platforms would be required to implement parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher, and reliable age verification mechanisms for content classified as “A”.

The rules would also force streaming services to submit to the authority of an appellate body headed by a retired High Court or Supreme Court justice. If this body believes that the content violates the law, it would be empowered to send the content to a government-controlled committee for blocking orders to be issued.

The streaming platforms, for the record, did not want such a board.

The government, of course, in a precursor to all the developments had last year brought in digital news media and OTT platforms under the ambit of I and B Ministry to make such legislations easy to implement.

Digital news media also come under radar

As of now, the OTT platforms have operated in India with little to no censorship.

As per new rules, digital news outlets have to disclose the size of their reach and structure of their ownership.

The government has called for a grievance redressal system for OTT platforms and digital portals as well. 

A structured regulatory mechanism was also suggested for digital news media.

India has put together these guidelines (opens in new tab) because citizens in India have long requested a “mechanism to address grievances,” the Minister said.

Over three decades as a journalist covering current affairs, politics, sports and now technology. Former Editor of News Today, writer of humour columns across publications and a hardcore cricket and cinema enthusiast. He writes about technology trends and suggest movies and shows to watch on OTT platforms.