MeitY may allow more time to spike toxic online content

NEW DELHI: The government may give internet and social media companies more time – up to 36 hours – under the intermediary guidelines to remove or disable access to unlawful content on their platforms.

According to the Information Technology Intermediaries Guidelines (Amendment) Rules released in December, which are currently being finalised, the ministry of electronics and IT (MeitY) had proposed that such companies would have to provide information to any government agency, including tracing the origin of messages, within 72 hours and remove the content within 24 hours.

The time to disable access or remove content is being increased to 36 hours, a senior government official told ET. “This is being done to bring it at par with the current provisions under the IT Act,” the official said.

The government is also looking to define what constitutes unlawful content. A controversial clause had required companies to build “automated tools” to proactively identify and remove unlawful content, which had sparked censorship fears among social media companies. “In the Prajwala case, the Supreme Court had already directed that content related to rape, gangrape and child pornography has to be removed. We are just adding terrorism to the definition of unlawful content, which was very wide earlier, so that companies can build algorithms to filter out such content,” the official said.

The Supreme Court, in a judgement passed in December 2018 on a petition filed by NGO Prajwala, had asked the government to frame guidelines and implement them within two weeks “so as to eliminate child pornography, rape and gangrape imageries, videos and sites in content-hosting platforms and other applications.”

Defining unlawful content is expected to reduce ambiguity and assuage the concerns of social media companies, which had argued that they were only intermediaries hosting usergenerated content on their platforms and building such tools or algorithms would lead to censorship.

“It’s good that the government is trying to clarify,” said Pavan Duggal, a Supreme Court advocate and cyber security expert. “We should learn from the backlash such encryption-based censorship measures are creating in countries such as Australia and must make sure we don’t walk that path.”

The government official said this clause will not apply to all intermediaries such as internet service providers and cloud service providers, as was feared earlier, and instead will be “applicable only wherever possible.”

“It can’t be everybody – it will be applied only wherever applicable. It can’t be for companies such as Amazon Web Services, which hosts content of social media companies. They just have to make sure that their users know that this kind of content cannot be posted and they should take measures to ensure it,” the official said.