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Social media platforms to set up grievance redressal mechanism, says Centre

New guidelines mandate platforms to give prior notice in case they plan to remove any individual c

NEW DELHI: The government on Thursday directed social media platforms and intermediaries to appoint a grievance officer based in India for time-bound redressal of complaints of users.

“Social media platforms have done exceedingly well in terms of business and the number of users, while also empowering ordinary Indians. But it is very important that crores of social media users must be given a proper forum for resolution of their grievances against use and abuse of social media in a time-bound manner,” said union information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad at a press conference.

According to the rules, the grievance officer would be required to acknowledge the complaint within 24 hours and resolve it within 15 days of its receipt. The platforms would also be required to ensure online safety of users, especially women and remove/disable access to any morphed content within 24 hours of the complaint, which can be filed either by the individual or by any other person on his/her behalf. “We have received several complaints from women, about morphed pictures being circulated on social media. This is uncivilised and impinges upon the dignity of the individuals,” he said.

Prasad reiterated that social media platforms are welcome to do business in India, but they would be required to follow “due diligence” under the new guidelines, failing which safe harbour provisions will not apply to them. The rules will come in effect from the date of their publication in the gazette. The union minister said that the government welcomes criticism and the right to dissent but expressed concerns that social networking sites are also being “used by criminals and terrorists to create chaos and mayhem in the country, not only from India but across the border.”

The new set of guidelines come against the backdrop of growing tensions between the government and social media platforms, including Twitter, over the Jack Dorsey-owned company’s refusal to fully comply with orders to remove certain accounts that were critical of the government's handling of ongoing farmers’ protests. 

“The basic essence of these guidelines is a soft touch oversight mechanism, where we are insisting upon the platforms to develop a robust mechanism for timely redressal of grievances,” said Prasad.  According to government data, India now has 53 crore WhatsApp users, 44.8 crore YouTube users, 41 crore users on Facebook, 21 crore users on Instagram and 1.75 crore on Twitter.

The government has also made a distinction between ‘social media intermediaries’ and ‘significant social media intermediaries’, based on a certain threshold of users. A separate set of guidelines would be applicable to the ‘significant social media intermediaries’, which would come in effect three months after publication of these rules.

Each significant social media intermediary would be required to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact person for 24x7 coordination with law enforcement agencies and a resident grievance officer. All three would be resident Indians. They will also have to publish a monthly compliance report mentioning the details of complaints received and action taken.

They will also have to give prior intimation in cases where they remove/disable access to any information (social media post) on their accord. So, the platforms will now have to communicate to the users the grounds and reasons for such action and give users adequate opportunity to dispute the action taken by the intermediary.

The government has also asked the significant social media intermediaries providing services primarily in the nature of messaging "to enable identification of the first originator of the information,” explaining that this would be required “only for the purposes of prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution or punishment of an offence related to sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order or of incitement to an offence relating to the above or in relation with rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than five years.”

The guidelines also require them to have a physical contact address in India, a voluntary user verification mechanism to enable users to verify their accounts voluntarily and be provided with a visible mark of verification. Additionally, the rules say, that an intermediary upon receiving actual knowledge in the form of an order by a court or being notified by the appropriate government or its agencies through authorised officer "should not host or publish any information which is prohibited under any law in relation to the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, public order, friendly relations with foreign countries etc."

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