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No plan to authenticate social media accounts using government IDs: MeitY clarifies in Lok Sabha

The question of verifying social media accounts with government IDs first came up in 2019.

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There is no proposal for a separate law to authenticate social media accounts by linking one’s government identity card with such accounts, as per a response on March 30 filed by the Ministry for Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). The written response was submitted by Union Minister for Electronics and IT Ashwini Vaishnaw to a query raised by Congress MP Abdul Khaleque.

The Union government said that it was aware of the risks and dangers posed by the growing phenomenon of fake news on various social media platforms which is why it has notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules 2021) to make social media platforms accountable to their users.

The response highlighted that significant social media intermediaries (SSMI) have been directed to allow users to voluntarily verify their accounts by using any “appropriate mechanism” which can include an active mobile number under IT Rules 2021. SSMIs must provide users with a “demonstrable and visible mark of verification” post the procedure.

The idea of authenticating social media accounts using government IDs was conceived as a measure to address the problem of fake news which has grown rapidly in the last two years. However, such a proposal is bound to spark privacy concerns as it may involve providing private organisations with personal (even biometric) data, without any data protection legislation in place. The response indicates that the government is not going to ratify such a proposal anytime soon.

Past calls to link social media accounts with government IDs

The question of verifying social media accounts with government IDs first came up in 2019 with reports detailing the govenerment’s plan to ask social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter to develop a user identity-verification procedure to check “fake news, malicious content, misinformation, racial slurs, gender abuse that may have an impact on the individual and society as a whole”.

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These reports suggested then that the government may ask for government IDs such as Aaadhar to verify social media accounts, which were promptly denied by the then-IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Several legal challenges sprang up in various High Courts across the country in 2019, demanding that users be asked to submit to a KYC procedure to access social media. India’s apex court ended up dismissing one of the cases. Instagram and Tinder announced that they were going to roll out a government ID-based verification feature, but Instagram restricted this feature to “suspicious accounts”.

At that time, the government had informed the court in an affidavit that it was working on social media guidelines that would mandate user verification from social media companies. The guidelines were subsequently released by MeitY in the form of the IT Rules, 2021.

Government’s efforts to curb fake news

The government has set up a Fact Check Unit under the Press Information Bureau (PIB) attached to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) in November 2019.

“…takes cognizance of fake news both suo-motu and by way of queries sent by citizens on its portal or through email and Whatsapp. The Fact Check Unit covers news on various media platforms, including electronic media,” Vaishnaw wrote in his response.

The government, relying on data maintained by the National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB), revealed that a total of 190 and 578 cases of fake news on social media were registered in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

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I cover several beats such as Crypto, Telecom, and OTT at MediaNama. I can be found loitering at my local theatre when I am off work consuming movies by the dozen.

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