India tightens regulatory grip on Facebook, WhatsApp with new rules


FILE PHOTO: India's flag is seen through a 3D printed Facebook logo in this illustration picture, April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India announced new rules on Thursday to regulate content on social media, making Facebook, WhatsApp and others more accountable to legal requests for swift removal of posts and sharing details on the originators of messages.

The rules -- part of an effort by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist government to tighten the leash on Big Tech -- come after Twitter recently ignored government orders to drop content related to farmers' protests.

India is the largest market by users for both Facebook and its messenger service WhatsApp.

The new rules issued by the government, called the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, will be legally enforceable.

They will require big social media companies to set up a grievance redressal mechanism and within three months appoint new executives to coordinate with law enforcement.

Social media firms should be "more responsible and accountable," Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister for information technology, told reporters in outlining the rules.

Big social media firms will be obliged to remove content within 36 hours of receiving a legal order, according to the rules.

The government also said companies need to assist in probes or other cyber security-related incidents within 72 hours of receiving a request. They must also disable within a day any post depicting an individual in a sexual act or conduct, said the rules, a draft copy of which was reported by Reuters on Wednesday.

IT minister Prasad also told reporters the rules would oblige the companies to reveal the originator of a message or post when legally ordered.

Facebook said it welcomed rules that prescribe ways to address challenges on the web. "The details of rules like these matter and we will carefully study the new rules," it said in a statement. Facebook-owned WhatsApp declined to comment.

A Twitter spokesman said the company would study the guidelines and looked forward to continued engagement with the Indian government.

"We believe that regulation is beneficial when it safeguards citizen’s fundamental rights and reinforces online freedoms," he said in a statement.

CENSORSHIP RISK

Tech firms are coming under tighter scrutiny worldwide. Facebook faced a backlash last week from some publishers and politicians after it blocked news feeds in Australia in a dispute with the government over revenue-sharing.

That prompted last-ditch changes by Australia in a law passed on Thursday to ensure Alphabet Inc's Google and Facebook pay media companies for content, a step that nations such as Britain and Canada want to follow.

India's rules will also require video-streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon's Prime Video to classify content into five categories based on users' age, the government said.

Online news media will also be regulated as part of the new rules, with the ministry of information and broadcasting creating an oversight system, the government added.

Apar Gupta, the executive director at advocacy Internet Freedom Foundation, said the new rules for digital news media portals and video-streaming platforms posed risks to freedom of speech.

"To fix the problems in these sectors the government has adopted an approach which carries the risks of political control and censorship," he said.

(Reporting by Sankalp Pharityal and Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in New York; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Lisa Shumaker)

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