Social Media Platforms and OTT Players Face Strict New Guidelines From Government

The government on Thursday announced sweeping regulations for social media firm like Facebook and Twitter as well as OTT players such as Netflix, requiring them to remove any content flagged by authorities within 36 hours and setting up a complaint redressal mechanism with an officer being based in the country.

The guidelines also make it mandatory for platforms such as Twitter and WhatsApp to identify the originator of a message that authorities consider to be anti-national and against security and sovereignty of the country.

The rules about digital media and OTT focus more on in-house and self-regulation mechanism whereby a robust grievance redressal mechanism has been provided while upholding journalistic and creative freedom.

This is the first time such rules have been framed for digital and online media operating within the country’s jurisdiction.

The norms on social media come weeks after a spat between the government and Twitter over certain messages around farmer protests that the government saw as inciting violence. The government sought removal of about 1,500 accounts and messages, a request that Twitter complied with, only after being warned of penal action.

IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Thursday said concerns have been raised over rampant abuse of social media platforms and spread of fake news.

“Social media companies are welcome to do business in India, and empower Indians…We welcome criticism and dissent… but it is important that users of social media are given a proper forum for resolution of their grievances in a time-bound manner,” Prasad said.

India is a large market for digital and social media companies and is witnessing strong growth on the back of booming smartphone sales and availability of dirt cheap data.

Prasad said intermediaries will fall into two categories – social media intermediary and significant social media intermediary.

This distinction is based on the number of users on the social media platform, and the government will soon notify the threshold of user base that will distinguish the two.

The rules require the ‘significant’ social media intermediaries to follow additional due diligence including appointment of chief compliance officer, a nodal contact person and a resident grievance officer. All the three officials will have to resident in India.

Significant social media companies will also have to publish a monthly compliance report disclosing details of complaints received and action taken, as also details of contents removed proactively.

In a move that could have major ramifications for players like Twitter and WhatsApp, government said that significant social media intermediaries providing services primarily in the nature of messaging will have to enable identification of the “first originator” of the information that undermines sovereignty of India, security of the state, or public order.

The intermediary, however, will not be required to disclose the contents of any message.

The rules also state that users who voluntarily want to verify their accounts should be given an appropriate mechanism to do so, and be accorded a visible mark of verification.

Users will have to be provided with a prior intimation and explanation when significant social media intermediary removes content on its own. In such cases, users have to be provided an adequate and reasonable opportunity to dispute the action taken by the intermediary.

Rules related to social media will be administered by Ministry of Electronics and IT, while those related Code of Ethics and procedure and safeguards in relation to digital media will be administered by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

On rules related to over-the-top (OTT) and digital media, the government said, guidelines have been framed keeping in mind the difference between viewership in a theatre and television, as compared to watching it on Internet.

A Code of Ethics and three-tier grievance redressal mechanism would be applicable for news publishers, OTT platforms and digital media.

OTT platforms would have to self-classify the content into five age-based categories – U (Universal), U/A 7+ (years), U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult). Such platforms have drawn flak for content that contains obscenity, and has at times hurt religious sentiments.

Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Prakash Javadekar said such 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 publishers of online curated content will also have to prominently display the classification rating specific to a programme together with a content descriptor, he added.

Publishers of news on digital media would be required to observe Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India and the Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act, providing a level-playing field between the offline (print, TV) and digital media, an official statement said.

“Digital media portals have no right to spread rumour. Media’s freedom is absolute but with reasonable restrictions. Content matter, especially media, OTT and digital media will be administered by I&B ministry. Intermediary platforms monitoring will be done by the IT ministry in the manner they have been doing it,” Javadekar said.

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