The government is preparing to alter its intermediary rules for online websites to make platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp more liable for its users’ content. The rule changes, first reported by the Economic Times, will come as guidelines to Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, and will therefore not require parliamentary approval.
The draft guidelines will require social media companies to appoint a grievance officer and ensure traceability for content posted by users. WhatsApp argues that traceability is not possible because messages are end-to-end encrypted, but some have argued otherwise, saying that unencrypted metadata held by WhatsApp can be leveraged.
In 2015, the Supreme Court interpreted Section 79, which deals with intermediaries, in a way that might make this harder for the government to do. Only a court order requires intermediaries to promptly respond to content takedown requests, the court held. These new guidelines may trigger further litigation before there is legal clarity for both WhatsApp and the government.
These guidelines come in the light of a growing number of lynchings attributed to the way rumours spread on WhatsApp. Local police have struggled to deal with these lynchings without information from WhatsApp, and more importantly, without a standardized procedure to investigate the spread of WhatsApp rumours on the ground.
SC issues notice
Separately, the Delhi-based Centre for Accountability and Systemic Change has filed a petition in the Supreme Court about WhatsApp’s failure to appoint a grievance officer. The Supreme Court has issued notice to the IT Ministry and WhatsApp in the case. Interestingly, while the timeline in this petition includes a 2013 order by the Delhi High Court to social media companies instructing them to appoint a grievance officer, it does not include any reference to the Shreya Singhal case, which came in 2015. The notice claims that since WhatsApp isn’t compliant with these guidelines as well as Indian tax laws, they need to be ordered to comply.