- So far, most of the big tech companies have yet to abide by the new IT rules.
- If technology companies do not follow the new rules, they will lose the protection that “middlemen” receive in the IT Act.
- In the long run, the rules can make services like Twitter and WhatsApp less private, giving users less anonymity.
Three months ago, after something of a Twitter challenge, the central government quickly unveiled a new set of IT rules. These rules are comprehensive and give the government incredible power over any company dealing with information and content within India. Almost every Internet company, whether it’s social media, messaging services, news organizations, or even streaming services like Netflix, has to follow the new rules. The deadline to do so, that is, to comply with the new rules, expires tonight. That is, one more day and it is a big headache ahead for companies like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.
However, first the big question: Will Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp be banned in India from tomorrow, that is, from May 26? Unlikely.
But if they don’t comply with the new rules, they will always be at risk of significant government action against them.
To understand all of this, let’s first take a quick look at what the government is asking for.
There are a number of new conditions and regulatory requirements that the government seeks to impose on social media companies. But some important ones are:
1- Big technology companies – the government calls them “important social media” – should have a compliance director in India who can respond to the demands and needs of the government when necessary. For example, if the government requires data from Twitter User A, and if the claim is legally valid, then this compliance officer will be responsible for producing this data.
2- Technology companies have also been asked to hire a nodal officer who will coordinate with law enforcement agencies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and whenever the government requires such coordination.
3- Social media companies have been asked to hire a complaint redress officer, whom social media users will be able to approach with their complaints if they have them.
4- And finally, companies like WhatsApp have been asked to make sure they can trace a message back to the original sender. Effectively, this means breaking or circumventing end-to-end encryption on messages. Fulfilling such a request is incredibly challenging, if not totally impossible, for a service like WhatsApp.
There are more rules, but most of them involve technology and policy changes that tech companies have been told to implement. However, the 4 requirements mentioned above are more important. When the government issued the rules on February 25, it said companies have three months to comply. This deadline ends tonight.
The big question then is: what happens next? Will Netflix be banned in India? Will the government ask WhatsApp to leave the country and block the application in India? Will Twitter face legal action?
So far, most of the big tech companies have yet to abide by the new IT rules. Netflix, however, has succeeded. Some other streaming services have, too. Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, says that “our goal is to comply with the provisions of the TI rules and continue to discuss some of the issues that need further engagement with the government.”
But what happens if they don’t or can’t comply? The government hasn’t specified much, beyond making a vague statement in its rules. This is what it says:
“When an intermediary does not respect these rules, the provisions of subsection (1) of Article 79 of the Law will not apply to said intermediary and the intermediary will be responsible for the punishment under any law for the time in force, including
what does this mean?
To know this, we need to understand what is sub-section (1) of section 79 of the IT Act. Well, this section of the IT Act provides protection by turning social media companies and web services into “intermediaries”. This means that they are not responsible for the user’s content.
So what the government is saying here is that if Twitter, Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, or any other social media company does not follow the new rules, then they will lose the protection given to “intermediaries” in the IT law. Once they lose this protection, they can be taken to court and prosecuted using the applicable laws.
In other words, like the new brokerage rules, the provisions of penalties for not following the rules are also quite broad and opaque.
What does all this mean for users?
Not much in the short term. Whether Twitter succeeds in following the new rules tonight, it will continue to operate in India tomorrow. The same goes for WhatsApp, Facebook, Netflix, Instagram, or any other service.
But these services, if they do not follow government rules, will only work until the government takes action against them.
If the government decides to take action against you, the action is unlikely to block the services. Instead, it is likely to take other punitive measures.
For example, the government may impose fines. Or you can stop the ability of these companies to do business in India. When Turkey asked social media companies last year to appoint a similar type of compliance officer, which India also wants, in the event of non-compliance, the Turkish government banned social media companies from posting advertisements in Turkey Fixed.
However, in the long term, there may be other implications for Indian Internet users. In the long run, regulations can make services like Twitter and WhatsApp less private, giving users less anonymity and less protection from surveillance.