Social me­dia, tech giants plan push­back on In­dia’s new reg­u­la­tions

The Gulf Today - Business - - REGION -

NEW DELHI: Global social me­dia and tech­nol­ogy giants are gear­ing up to fight sweep­ing new rules pro­posed by the In­dian gov­ern­ment that would re­quire them to ac­tively reg­u­late con­tent in one of the world’s big­gest In­ter­net mar­kets, sources close to the mat­ter told Reuters.

The rules, pro­posed by the In­for­ma­tion Tech­nol­ogy min­istry on Christ­mas Eve, would com­pel plat­forms such as Face­book, its mes­sag­ing ser­vice What­sapp and Twit­ter to re­move un­law­ful con­tent, such as any­thing that af­fected the “sovereignty and in­tegrity of In­dia”. This had to be done within 24 hours, the rules pro­pose.

The pro­posal, which caught many hol­i­day­ing in­dus­try executives off guard, is open for pub­lic com­ment un­til Jan.31. It will then be adopted as law, with or with­out changes.

The move comes ahead of In­dia’s na­tional elec­tion due by May and amid ris­ing wor­ries that ac­tivists could mis­use social me­dia, es­pe­cially the What­sapp mes­sag­ing ser­vice, to spread fake news and sway vot­ers.

In­dus­try executives and civil rights ac­tivists say the rules smack of cen­sor­ship and could be used by the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi to in­crease sur­veil­lance and crack down on dis­sent. Social me­dia firms have long bat­tled ef­forts by gov­ern­ments around the world to hold them re­spon­si­ble for what users post on their plat­forms.

US and In­dia lobby groups, rep­re­sent­ing Face­book and other com­pa­nies, have sought le­gal opin­ions from law firms on the im­pact of the fed­eral pro­posal, and have started work­ing on draft­ing ob­jec­tions to be filed with the IT min­istry, four sources in the sec­tor said.

“The com­pa­nies can’t take this ly­ing down. We are all con­cerned, it’s fun­da­men­tal to how these plat­forms are gov­erned,” said an ex­ec­u­tive at a global social me­dia com­pany.

An es­ti­mated half a bil­lion peo­ple in In­dia have ac­cess to the In­ter­net. Face­book has about 300 mil­lion users in the coun­try and What­sapp has more than 200 mil­lion. Tens of mil­lions of In­di­ans use Twit­ter.

PRI­VACY OF USERS

The new rules, the sources said, would put pri­vacy of users at risk and raise costs by re­quir­ing oner­ous round-the-clock mon­i­tor­ing of on­line con­tent.

In­ter­net firm Mozilla Cor­po­ra­tion said last week the pro­posal was a “blunt and dis­pro­por­tion­ate” so­lu­tion to the prob­lem of harm­ful con­tent on­line, and one which could lead to over-cen­sor­ship and “chill free ex­pres­sion”.

The IT min­istry has said the pro­posal was aimed at only mak­ing social me­dia safer. “This is not an ef­fort to curb free­dom of speech, or (im­pose) cen­sor­ship,” Go pal a kr­ishna nS ., a joint sec­re­tary at In­dia’ s IT min­istry said on Satur­day when the min­istry ran a Safer­so­cial­me­dia cam­paign on Twit­ter.

Face­book and What­sapp de­clined to com­ment.

A Twit­ter spokesper­son said the com­pany con­tin­ues to en­gage with the IT Min­istry and civil so­ci­ety on the pro­posed rules.

“This will be like a sword hang­ing on tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies,” said Nikhil Naren­dran, a part­ner spe­cial­iz­ing in tech­nol­ogy law at In­dian law firm Tri­le­gal.

Such reg­u­la­tions are not unique to In­dia. Viet­nam has asked tech com­pa­nies to open lo­cal of­fices and store data do­mes­ti­cally, while Aus­tralia’s par­lia­ment has passed a bill to force com­pa­nies to give po­lice ac­cess to en­crypted data. Ger­many re­quires social me­dia com­pa­nies to re­move il­le­gal hate speech within 24 hours or face fines.

Nev­er­the­less, the pro­posal would fur­ther strain re­la­tions be­tween In­dia and global tech­nol­ogy firms. They have been at odds since last year due to fed­eral pro­pos­als re­quir­ing them to store more user data lo­cally to bet­ter as­sist le­gal in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

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