The guidelines framed for social media companies in the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, are aimed at preventing abuse and misuse of social media and will not affect users, Union minister for communications, electronics and information and technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said in an interview with Smriti Kak Ramachandran. Edited excerpts:
Q) What is the reason for the standoff between the social media companies and the government?
A) India is a democracy; social media companies are free to do business here and earn profit. They have empowered ordinary Indians, but our approach is very straightforward; namely, you (companies) will have to follow the Constitution and laws of India.
Q) There are concerns that these guidelines will lead to censorship of voices that are critical of the government and about maintaining end-to-end encryption.
A) These guidelines do not deal with the use of social media. We permit criticism against the government and the Prime Minister, but the issue is the abuse and misuse of social media platforms. What should I say when a woman complains that her morphed image is being circulated on social media? Or a mother complains that her daughter’s ex-boyfriend is pushing out intimate pictures. Should they be asked to go to America to file a complaint? Nowadays judges are trolled and defamed; fake news has become an everyday occurrence.
These guidelines basically enjoin three things. Number one, appoint an India-based grievance redressal officer whose address and phone number are known to us and those grievances must be addressed in 15 days’ time. You have to give a monthly report that grievances have been addressed. Secondly, have a compliance officer to deal with the rules and regulations, and third, for nodal contact with the government, there must be a person. Are we asking for the moon? There are more than hundred crore users of social media in India; it did not happen suddenly, there was demand from civil society; there were two Supreme Court judgments in 2018 and the Facebook case of 2019, where the Supreme Court spoke about how some messages can incite violence or be a threat to the sovereignty of the country; paedophiles use it in a big way. In such circumstances, it is imperative that there is a properly framed regime to find out the person and institutional bodies who are the originators of such content.
Q) But there is a concern that traceability will compromise privacy.
A) Let me assure all the users of WhatsApp, ordinary users have nothing to fear. They will do as they are doing now. What we are seeking now is information about only those messages whose contents are already in the public domain — which incite a riot, mob lynching, impinge on the sovereignty and security of the country, show a woman in bad light or show child sexual abuse — and are being circulated and re-circulated. They have to disclose who began the mischief and if it has come from across the border, who lapped it up in India. Can we deny that last year, during the riot in Delhi, many explosive messages came from across the border?
This will be done only and only when other less intrusive methods have not worked. There is a reasonable classification that it is for the public good for the safety and security of India, and dignity of women and against child sexual abuse.
Q) Has the government addressed the concern of not having a digital fingerprint on all messages?
Let us disabuse ourselves of this notion of privacy. We appreciate the judgement of Supreme Court on privacy. But in the same judgment, the court observed that a terrorist or a corrupt or a criminal do not have the right of privacy otherwise there will be no investigation.
Second, what a person eats is a personal choice, but if you go to a restaurant, the bill will be digital. They know what you ate. Where you travel is a personal choice but if you go by a plane, tickets will be digital, they will know you travelled on a particular date.
Privacy, in my considered view, is something that relates to individual identity — your matrimonial information, your sexual preferences, your medical records and your health records and the privacy right of a minor and maybe if you’re not a public servant then your income. These are the privacy rights, and they must be safeguarded.
Q) There is a perception that if the intermediary tag is removed, it may even mean more censorship. Also, going by the requests for takedowns, the government appears less accommodating of criticism.
A) It is absolutely false. First, in these guidelines, the government is out; you (companies) have to appoint a grievance officer. The victim of abuse will relate to the social media company, not the government. If a woman’s dignity is being robbed, she will ask WhatsApp who started it and if you (companies) do not (help) then the security establishment will help her. The larger narrative, however, is when you blocked the Twitter accounts of many who invaded the Capitol Hill in Washington, including that of a former president, that’s your call. How is it that when at the Red Fort, in the wake of the farmers’ agitation, content related to terrorist supporters and sword wielding people was pushed out… this is double standard. You show a part of Ladakh as a part of China and we have to labour for a fortnight to get it removed, why? When Singapore protested why is it called the Singaporean variant they removed it immediately, but here in India we have to labour for a week to remove the tags Indian variant and Modi variant. Earn good money, do good business, but you will have to learn to respect the laws of India. India will not compromise its digital sovereignty.
Q) The Vice President’s Twitter account lost the verification badge as did many RSS leaders’. Has the government taken this up?
A) I understand they have already restored it but I will not go into that issue except to make this observation– Twitter is welcome to do business in India but learn to respect constitutional authority.