Dissatisfied with the popular messaging platform, WhatsApp’s, response to an unfortunate lynching of several people across the country earlier this year provoked by false, fake news and unfounded rumors circulated on the app, the Union Government of India has decided to tighten regulations set in place for ensuring the accountability of social media platforms and internet firms. According to an official involved, the stringent move will involve the notification of fresh clauses under existing intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act. The official added that,“The draft of the guidelines is ready and a legal firm is vetting it. It should be out by September.”
To add to the intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the IT Act notified in 2011 which mandates companies to follow “due diligence” and allows them a time span of 36 hours to look into and remove any and all objectionable content, along with naming a grievance officer on their website for response; the new guidelines shall mandate global internet and social media firms to name a grievance officer in the country endowed with the responsibility of responding to complaints within a few hours, as well as ensure the traceability of content.
According to legal experts, the government’s move to ensure traceability of content is expected to open a “can of worms” since this law shall be binding on text messages over the cellular network as well.
The government can’t expect officials of companies to take decisions on content within a few hours, something the courts will take many years to decide. There are some sites such as Facebook which curate the news feed and play some active control, and we can put responsibility on them, but all messages don’t need to be reviewed to solve this. - Rahul Matthan, partner at law firm Trilegal
Commenting on the anticipated breach of privacy that the clause ensuring the traceability of content entail, Raman Jit Singh Chima, global policy director at Access Now, a digital advocacy group, says, “The Section 79 rules were subject to review and reading down by the Supreme Court of India in its landmark Shreya Singhal judgment. Any change to them would impact constitutional rights and requires great care and open discussion. It's unfortunate that the government body tasked to manage this - the Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee - appears to not be meeting or engaging with stakeholders publicly.”
On Tuesday, Union minister for electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad, told WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels that the company should comply with local laws, establish a corporate entity in the country, and appoint a grievance officer stationed in India, apart from asking WhatsApp to provide a technological solution to detect the origin of messages which are being circulated at a mass level in a particular area apart from storing data in India.
While Daniels is yet to comment on the company’s position on allowing the Government to ensure the traceability of messages, a spokesperson for the company has revealed that “attributing messages on WhatsApp would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse. Our focus is on improving WhatsApp and working closely with others in society to help keep people safe”.
WhatsApp has already introduced changes like limiting forwards and identifying such forwarded messages; a move which has been claimed to be too little too late by government officials concerned in the matter. As of now the company’s position on the traceability of messages remains unchanged. Trilegal’s Matthan has informed that the Supreme Court has instructed the government to come up with a law against lynching and not against the messenger.
He added saying, “The legislature can’t amend the concepts which have been laid down by the apex court during the Singhal judgment.” Prasad, for his part, has let reporters know of his talks with WhatsApp’s Daniels, saying that the company (WhatsApp) has agreed to set up a corporate entity in India, appoint a grievance officer in the country as well as follow the local laws of the land.