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Social media under scanner for ‘unlawful’ content

The government has asked for public comments on the recommended amendments to the Information Technology (IT) Act that seeks to make it mandatory for the platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter to trace “originator” of “unlawful” information, while also removing such content within 24 hours after being notified. As per the draft ‘The Information Technology [Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018’ released, the intermediary after being notified by the appropriate authority should remove or disable access to unlawful content within 24 hours in the “interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence, on its computer resource without vitiating the evidence in any manner”.

This draft comes close on the heels of a recent Supreme Court order that gave a green signal to the government to frame guidelines or a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to deal with the publication and proliferation of sexually abusive online content like child pornography, rape and gang rape videos and objectionable material through social media intermediaries like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp. The Centre’s draft SOP includes setting up of proactive monitoring tools for auto-deletion of unlawful content, deployment of trusted flaggers for identifying and deletion of unlawful content, setting up of a 24/7 mechanism for requisitions of Law Enforcement Agencies, and appointment of India-based contact officers.

Advocate and Cyber Law Expert Prashant Mali, who practices in the Bombay High Court said, “The IT Act, 2000 has aged while the technology has progressed and new threats like Fake News, contraband selling on e-commerce websites, cryptojacking, ransomware, online defamation, etc. have evolved. The IT Act needs to cover all these threats and should have deterrent punishment prescribed.”

When asked how the new amendments to the existing Act can help in securing social harmony, Mali asserted, “These new IT rules would make Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and social media more responsible towards Indian Law. Fake news has exhumed people’s lives in India and with social media, we’re turning Nero’s eye. While the rules like the removal of unlawful content within 24 hours are also becoming a norm in Europe and other countries, India with its huge population needs to implement these rule hitherto.”

Some key suggestions of the IT [Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules] 2018 include: Enable tracing the originator of information on the platform, Disable access to unlawful acts within 24 hours of being notified, Deploy automated tools to identify and disable access to unlawful content, Report cybersecurity incidents with the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team.

The intermediary is also expected to preserve such information and associated records for at least 180 days for investigation purposes as against 90 days now.

Following fears of “Surveillance and Censorship” with the proposed norms, the government clarified that it does not regulate content appearing on social network platforms.

Pointing that a number of lynching incidents were reported in 2018 mostly due to fake news being circulated through WhatsApp and other social media sites, the government said that social media has brought in new challenges for the Law Enforcement Agencies including inducement for recruitment of terrorists, circulation of obscene content, spread of disharmony, and incitement to violence.

It said that the Minister for Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad, while responding to a calling attention motion on “Misuse of social media platforms and spreading of fake news” in Parliament, had conveyed the resolve of the government to strengthen the legal framework and make the social media platforms accountable under the law.

ACP (Samta Nagar Division) Subhash N Vele spoke to AV and said, “Nowadays, it is common in social media to defame someone, post fake news or post inflammatory posts that are harmful to the society. These are crimes under both the Indian Penal Code and the Cyber Act and are punishable offences. So, the government has appointed a number of officials in every police station to look after such cases. Such crimes are increasing day by day and our Cyber Cell is prepared to face them.”

Subsequently, the IT Ministry prepared the draft rules to replace the ones notified in 2011. The proposed rules state that intermediaries should within 72 hours, provide information or assistance asked for by any government agency or assistance concerning the security of the State or cybersecurity; or investigation or detection or prosecution or prevention of offence(s); protective or cyber security and matters connected with or incidental thereto.”

“I feel such amendments to the existing law are a necessity in today’s world considering the exposure of social media to the teenagers is very high. They are not matured enough to differentiate the right from the wrong and are easily manipulated into believing in someone else’s ideology. We have recent examples like Blue Whale Game which came into existence from the social media and caused a global catastrophe,” expressed Software Engineer Saurajit Bose.

He added, “Furthermore, the amendments should be carefully formulated in such a way that a person’s basic fundamental right ‘Freedom of Speech and Expression’ is not under jeopardy.”

                                                                                                                                                By-Omkar Tavasalkar


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