India’s Information Technology Department today unveiled a new plan of action to combat fake news that would require foreign social media firms like Facebook, Twitter and Google to establish offices in India and actively help in flagging and tracking down people who post troublesome messages online.
Ravi Shankar Prasad also said WhatsApp, in particular, has been told to put in place a software mechanism that would trigger alerts when “harmful” messages are spread on the platform. The messaging platform has also been told to put in place a mechanism to share such messages with local authorities.
Among the messages that are disallowed in India are those that can hurt the religious feelings of a community, disparage or defame a person or a company, harm India’s economic interests, or incite someone to commit a crime or violence.
“To continue to target Indian users, such (social media) intermediaries must implement appropriate legal measures and assist in curtailing any use of such platforms that perpetuate harm in the society, including loss of life and disruption of public order,” Prasad said in Parliament today.
“This at the minimum, certainly requires them to ensure that all such malicious messages circulated through their services or platforms in India can be traced and their source of origin be effectively identified by law enforcement agencies or relevant public authorities,” he said.
“They should provide technological solution so that verified fake news and provocative messages can be filtered by the technical solution. They should bring in a more effective mechanism for receiving grievances and they should report to the law enforcement agencies. They should seek to provide the facility of verifying fake news on the platform itself,” he added.
He also said these companies, who are mostly located in the US, should “submit themselves and their services to the jurisdiction of Indian courts and authorities by having a physical presence in India.”
“The government is therefore, seriously considering, through appropriate rules, that all social media platforms should be required to locate their grievance officers in India, who could act as the point of contact for all communications with regard to such grievances.
“The duty of such grievance officers should cover not to only to receive such grievances on a real time basis, but also to inform law enforcement agencies. It is planned to issue directives in public interest to such intermediaries that would require all such social media platforms do not become vehicles for promoting hatred, terrorism, money laundering, mob violence and rumor mongering.”
Indian government has been at a loss as to how to manage and control social media in the same way that it is able to regulate traditional media.
Traditional media in India is subject to various controls and regulations, primarily through the need to acquire and renew various licenses and approvals from the government. They are also subject to various content codes. Radio stations, for example, are prohibited from carrying any program that is related to ‘current affairs’ or ‘news’.
However, social media companies are based outside India, and operate outside such controls. The government too, has largely been content to leave them to their devices.
However, over time, social media has become crucial in the formation of public opinion in India — a role that was previously performed by traditional media.
As such, it has, from the government’s stand point, become too important to be ignored. Recent violent incidents related to fake alerts spread via WhatsApp have given a handle for the government to exert pressure on these platforms.
Prasad urged social media companies to realize that now they are an ‘important stakeholder’ in the overall system.
“The government wishes to make it very clear that social media platforms run by any company or entity is an important stakeholder and therefore, it cannot evade its responsibility, accountability and larger commitment to ensure that the platform is not misused on a large scale to spread incorrect facts projected as news and designed to instigate people to commit crimes,” Prasad clarified.
The biggest thorn in the side of the authorities so far has been WhatsApp.
The messaging platform is by far the most popular social platform in India — partly because of the high level of privacy guaranteed by its design.
The high level of privacy is a result of the untraceable nature of WhatsApp propagation. While posts and messages on other social media like Facebook and Twitter can be easily tracked down to an IP address and in turn to the person who created it, WhatsApp currently lacks such a tracking mechanism.
Prasad said this has to change. In fact, not only should WhatsApp let authorities trace messages to their creators, but it should also take it upon itself to alert authorities when “harmful” messages start going viral. He admitted that WhatsApp has put in place some measures already.
“While taking note of such response, it was felt that it was not adequate to meet the challenges of the situation,” he said. “Therefore, WhatsApp has been asked to come out with better technological solutions so that the misuse of the platform can be avoided.
“The government has issued a second notice to WhatsApp and it was conveyed to them at the highest levels that being a technological company, it is their responsibility to come up with a technical solution when a harmful message is in wide circulation on the same day in a particular area on a particular issue. It is their obligation to inform the law enforcement agencies when they notice such messages,” he said.
It remains to be seen how many of these proposals are ultimately implemented by the social media companies.
The government’s leverage is limited by the fact that it cannot impose an outright ban on these services due to their extreme popularity in India.
Every other Internet user in India is on WhatsApp and Facebook, while around 36 mln Indians are on Twitter.