Facebook and Twitter other application icons are displayed on a smartphone in an arranged photograph. (Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

Facebook, Twitter, Others Seek Legal Opinion On New Internet Rules In India

The government should hold robust consultation with stakeholders before finalising the revised rules for social media as a "carefully crafted balance" is needed between security and free expression, according to Twitter and other social media platforms.

The proposed amendments to information technology rules aimed at curbing misuse of social media and online platforms ahead of the general election have sparked concerns among various stakeholders. Against this backdrop, Twitter's Global Vice President-Public Policy Colin Crowell told PTI that any promulgation of new rules in this area should only come after a robust consultation.

"With respect to intermediary liability, there is a carefully crafted balance that needs to be struck between ensuring the safety and security of an experience on any social media platform with respect to content, and protection with respect to privacy and free expression," Crowell said. He noted that this "balance is at risk of being upended" by norms like asking social media platforms to pro-actively monitor content. On condition of anonymity, a senior executive of another global social media platform said it is unclear whether India wants to be a leader in data privacy or mass surveillance. According to him, a mandate for interception and decryption of information would hurt people's ability to have a private conversation online. While the discussions are going on with the government, the executive emphasised that requiring collection of and access to personal data, even when a crime has not been committed, would have serious global ramifications.

Among the draft amendments is a proposal that would require 'intermediaries' to enable tracing of originators of information when required by authorised government agencies. Another proposed provision would require social media platforms to deploy tools to "identify" and curb unlawful content.

Some industry experts have warned that the planned amendments—that mandate traceability of "unlawful content"—could invade personal privacy and free speech. Crowell said Twitter serves roughly 500 million tweets a day and that is around a billion tweets every two days.

"Nobody wants a typewriter that edits what you type as you type it, you want to be able to type what you believe and to publish that," he said.

In December, the IT ministry officials held a meeting with senior executives of Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other companies to discuss the proposed changes to the IT rules. While comments from the public have been sought on the draft rules, a section of the stakeholders has slammed the proposed changes. Mozilla, the not-for-profit entity behind web browser Firefox, had said the move is a "blunt and disproportionate" fix to the problem of harmful online content and would lead to over-censorship.

The Opposition said the proposals if implemented would violate privacy of individuals and termed it as an attempt to convert India into a "nanny state".

Crowell batted for a wide consultation stating that the process "should not be solely with the largest companies in the space but with a variety of stakeholders—both in industry and civil society".

This is because the rights and responsibilities that are articulated in any intermediary liability regime also go directly to the heart of how individual Indians can express themselves in open society, Crowell explained.