Facebook, Netflix Face Fresh Scrutiny as India Tightens Grip

India joined the global regulatory push to rein in Silicon Valley technology giants.

Facebook, Netflix Face Fresh Scrutiny as India Tightens Grip
The logos for Facebook Inc., Inc., Netflix Inc. and Google sit on smartphone and tablet devices. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

India joined the global regulatory push to rein in Silicon Valley technology giants, tightening rules that govern how social media and streaming companies do business in the world’s biggest democracy.

The new rules that come into immediate effect will require the likes of Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. to take down unlawful content quicker, Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in an online briefing Thursday. Messaging apps can be asked to provide the identity of the originators of unlawful messages on their platforms, Prasad said, implying the likes of Whatsapp may have to break the encryption and dilute users’ privacy safeguards.

Streaming services such as Netflix Inc., Google’s YouTube and Inc.’s Prime Video face stricter oversight over content containing sexually explicit scenes, violence and abusive language, according to the new rules.

Already under scrutiny from Australia and Europe to their home turf of the U.S., the tech giants can now add their most important emerging market to the list of countries whose regulators are paying closer attention. Policy changes have the potential to slow down the companies in a market that’s already the largest for some of them in terms of the number of users.

‘Take Control’

“Governments everywhere are trying to take control of the free flow of information and not relinquish it to any one social or technology company,” said Ashutosh Sharma, research director at Forrester Research Inc. “We’re moving towards a world where social media will be regulated in some form or the other.”

“The details of rules like these matter and we will carefully study the new rules that were just published,” a Facebook India spokeswoman said in an emailed response. “Facebook is committed to people’s ability to freely and safely express themselves on our platforms.

Local representatives of Whatsapp, Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ Hotstar didn’t immediately comment on the new regulations.

Large social media platforms will need to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact person, a grievance officer, all of them resident in India, according to Prasad, India’s minister of electronics and information technology. “Platforms will be required to give monthly compliance reports,” he said, and companies have three months to ahere to the new rules.

Increased Censorship

The new rules replace a previous code from 2011. Draft versions that have been circulating recently have attracted criticism from freedom-of-speech activists and technology trade groups concerned the rules will result in increased censorship and reduced user privacy.

“The Rules could undermine the principles of open and accessible internet,” New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Center said in an emailed comment. The “traceability provision” will undermine the end-to-end encryption services offered by instant messaging platforms as well as the privacy of private communication, it said.

India’s fast-growing digital economy is headed toward 1 billion users by 2025, prompting the deep-pocketed corporations to battle for market share in everything from online retail and digital payments to messaging and streaming.

Facebook’s namesake social network is used by 410 million people in India and its WhatsApp messaging service by 530 million, said Prasad, while YouTube has 448 million users, Instagram 210 million and Twitter 17.5 million.

Besides the global giants, the new rules -- called Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code -- are set to affect a swath of Indian startups. Beyond streaming and messaging, the code will also set guidelines for digital publishers of news and current-affairs content.

The social media platforms were becoming increasing rife with fake news and were being used to hurt religious sentiments, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said in a statement after the media conference.

“Over the years, the increasing instances of misuse of social media by criminals, anti-national elements have brought new challenges for law enforcement agencies,” the ministry said. “ These include inducement for recruitment of terrorists, circulation of obscene content, spread of disharmony, financial frauds, incitement of violence, public order etc.”

The new guidelines follow the Indian government’s dispute with Twitter over allegedly inflammatory tweets supporting farmer protests, with the messaging service refusing to comply with certain blocking orders. Meanwhile, an Amazon Prime Video original series “Tandav” was ordered by authorities to be re-edited following protests over its depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses.

The new rules “have the potential to fundamentally change how the internet is accessed and used by millions of users across India,” India-based digital liberties campaigner, Internet Freedom Foundation said on its website. Any attempts to weaken encryption would “undermine the privacy and security of all users,” it said.

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