How India's new internet regulations will change social media, online news and video streaming

India introduced on February 25 broad new regulations to social media, online news websites, and streaming platforms, which experts say could seriously change the way Indian citizens experience the internet.

Among other things, the IT Rules 2021 require social media platforms to deploy AI-based technology to identify sexually explicit content, trace the originator of encrypted messages, introduce a “voluntary verification system” for its users, and hire local teams to respond to both Indian users’ and government's complaints about content. Regulations for platforms with more than 5 million users will be even tougher.

Meanwhile, streaming services and digital news outlets will from now on be regulated by India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, rather than India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeytY). What this means in practice is that services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, for example, will have to comply with the same regulations as Indian television channels.

If failing to comply with the Rules, social media platforms could lose intermediary immunity, as enshrined in India's Information Technology Act of 2000, and could be prosecuted for content posted by its users. The rules also empower the government to require video streaming services to broadcast disclaimers, warning cards, and even censor content.

The new rules come in the wake of months of nationwide farmers’ protests in which hundreds of people have been arrested, including for things they have posted online. In February, the Indian government made a request to Twitter to suspend accounts that had used the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide, with which the platform temporarily complied.

On a blog post, the Internet Freedom Foundation, an Indian digital liberties organization, has done a deep-dive into the Rules and their possible impact on Indian internet users’ lives. We'll highlight below two major points of concern of the new guidelines.

End to end-to-end encryption

This is a provision that will only apply to platforms with more than 5 million users, which the Rules designate as “significant social media intermediaries.”

Platforms that offer end-to-end encryption messaging such as WhatsApp and Signal must be able to identify the originator of a piece of content if required by a court order or a competent authority.

The competent authorities, as defined by the previous IT Rules of 2009, is the Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs at the central government level, or the Secretary in charge of the Home Department at the state level.

While the rules clarify that such orders will only be issued in cases of serious offenses, some types of offenses in India are very open-ended, IFF says on its blog.

“For instance, ‘public order’ grounds are relatively broad in operation and can give rise to many demands,” the organization states.

Back to the pre-internet era

A whole section of the rules deals with online news outlets and video streaming platforms. As these services will be regulated by India's Ministry of Information and Broadcast, they will come under the same set of rules that apply to offline media, such as newspapers and television.

For example, streaming services will be required to introduce age-classification labels to their content as well as an age-verification mechanism for their users (many streaming services already have such a mechanism as well as age-appropriate labels).

Both streaming services and online news will also need to abide by a Code of Ethics that is annexed to the Rules, which dictates, among other issues, that they should “exercise due caution and discretion” when depicting activities of racial and religious groups.

“This is likely to have a chilling effect on speech as it provides formal validity to the concerns which have been raised by certain groups against artistic content,” IFF says.

Another major concern pointed by IFF when it comes to online news media is that the Rules do not designate a size threshold as it does with social media intermediaries. The Rules will be applicable to anything and anyone who publishes “news and current affairs content” online, as long as they have a presence in India.

“The Intermediaries Rules will arguably seek to regulate a large number of internet users that engage in producing similar content on a very small scale,” IFF says.

Reactions

A number of experts have said the new rules are anti-democratic and unconstitutional. Noted political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot considers the rules to be an extension of executive control over digital entities.

An official spokesman of the opposition party Indian National Congress condemned the new guidelines stating that they have been brought out without legislative discussions.

The regulations related to digital news media have been challenged by independent online portals The Wire and Newsminute in the Delhi High Court.

On March 11, the Digital News Publishers Association, a group with some of the largest media conglomerates in India, met with Minister of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar to discuss how they ought to be treated differently from digital news outlets as they already adhere to multiple regulations under the Cable TV Network Act and the Press Council Act.

For now, major United States’ tech companies such as Google and Twitter haven't commented on the new rules.

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