Govt mulling fines for social media firms under IT rules; to issue SOPs for compliance

The Indian government is considering amendments to the new social media rules to add in fines for non-compliance instead of convicting employees for their first transgression itself at social media companies who are supposed to ensure compliance with the rules, according to two senior government officials. 

“Many companies have reached out to us requesting to make this change and we are currently having this discussion internally within the [IT] Ministry to see whether and how we can introduce these changes,” said a government official on condition of anonymity. 

“We want companies to do business in India without feeling as if they are under a lot of pressure,” a second government official said. 

Both the officials wouldn’t say when and whether these changes will see the light of day since discussions within the ministry are at a preliminary stage. 

Imposing a fine on social media companies for non-compliance is not a new practice. In Russia and Turkey, for instance, social media companies are fined a certain amount for not adhering to their intermediary liability or content regulation regime. 

In India, however, the social media rules, which came in effect on May 26, currently say that a social media company’s senior-most executive relevant to the issue—the chief compliance officer—could be held liable under any proceedings in case of non-compliance. In simple English, it means that these employees face a very real risk of going to jail. Not exactly the best carrot to attract quality employees too.

Thus the rule has been a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand,it has been a contentious issue for social media companies who see prosecution of a senior employee of the company as a harsh punishment given these companies do not control the content posted on their platforms.

On the other hand, civil society activists and free speech experts say that since the penalty for non-compliance is so harsh, social media companies would err on the side of caution and end up with overbearing rules on content to protect their employees. 

Entrackr has previously written about this issue in detail, where public policy experts and highly placed sources at social media companies had pointed out that India’s intermediary liability regime needs to find a middle ground since the prosecution is too harsh, and fines are perhaps a good way to ensure compliance. 

Both the officials quoted above also said that the government is in the process of releasing clarifications on several provisions under the social media rules. “We will release the SOPs soon because that has been a big demand from the companies,” one of the officials said. 

According to the officials, the SOPs would clarify which law enforcement agencies and government bodies can ask such companies to remove content from their platforms.  The biggest issue, however, on the ambiguous description of content considered inappropriate, remains a challenge for the foreseeable future.

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