The government today announced its new Information Technology Rules, 2021 for social media platforms, OTT platforms and digital media. The new rules are laid down by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeITY) and it is the first in India that a governing body will regulate news organisations, social media platforms and OTT players.

According to Union Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, the rules laid down today will come in effect from the date of their publication. The only exception is that rules laid for social media intermediaries will come in effect three months after the publication date.  

Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 Key Features:  

Social media companies and redressal  

The new laid down rules prescribe social media platforms to have a robust mechanism through which complaints from users can be addressed. The government has proposed social media intermediaries to have these positions in place:  

A CCO (Chief Compliance Officer) who will be responsible for ensuring that all the acts and rules are being followed. 

A Nodal Contact person who will be in contact with law enforcement agencies 24*7.  

An RGO (Resident Grievance Officer) who will perform the acts mentioned in the proposed Grievance Redressal Mechanism.  

The Grievance redressal mechanism 

The government has come up with a 3-tier grievance redressal mechanism with 2 levels of self-regulation. Level 1 will be on the publisher level and level 2 will be on the self-regulatory body level. The third tier in this mechanism will be the Oversight Mechanism that will fall under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The mechanism is based on the notion of minimum governance; however, the platforms are asked to develop a robust grievance redressal mechanism on their own.  

The self-regulatory body will be headed by a retired Supreme Court or High Court judge or a person of importance from the relevant field. 

First originator tracking 

The new rules have called for a “first originator” tracking of messages and apply this to all social media intermediaries. The proposed rules state that the social media intermediaries should have physical contact information in India on their website or app or both of the first originator of messages. 

The government claims that it is not interested in the message content but are more interested in who starts a ‘mischief’. The government wants social media intermediaries to disclose the information of the first originator of a fake news tweet or message. This will also be relevant to the matters of Indian security, public order, or with regard to sexually explicit material.  

It would be interesting to see how WhatsApp, which promises end-to-end encryption, breaks the encryption to comply or finds a middle way out.  

Rules for OTT Platforms and Digital Media  

The government is also proposing OTT platforms and news media platforms to form a mechanism for grievances addressing and self-regulation.  

Now OTT platforms will need to self-classify their content based on age. The content will have to be thoroughly classified based on the fact if it is appropriate for a certain age or not. The government wants OTT players to self-classify their content based on 5 age-based categories – U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult).  

The OTT platforms would be needed to implement parental locks on any content that is classified U/A 13+ or higher. Additionally, an age-verification mechanism for content classified as “A” would be enforced. Although there are a number of external parental lock mechanisms in place and platforms like Netflix come with parental lock options, it would be first where an all-encompassing mechanism would be enforced.  

For news and digital media publishers, a “Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India and the Programme Code” will be in place which will provide a level playing field between offline (print and television) and digital media. The government wants the same 3-tier grievance redressal mechanism to be placed for news and digital media publishers as well. This includes self-regulation seen by publishers, self-regulation by Centre formed self-regulating bodies and an oversight mechanism.