In one of the world’s biggest internet markets, the Indian government has formulated new social media guidelines that are raising alarm bells for social media companies.

By Lisa Smyth

Posted on January 15, 2019

With heightened concerns about the spreading of fake news during national elections set to take place in May, India’s Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology proposed new social media guidelines on 24 December 2018.

Open for public comment through 31 January 2019, the new rules would compel platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter to remove, within 24 hours, any unlawful content that affects the ‘sovereignty and integrity of India’. The move comes after fake messages about child kidnapping gangs on WhatsApp led to a number of mob lynchings in 2018.

However, industry experts and civil rights activists are concerned that the new rules are veering dangerously close to censorship, and lobbyists have already started drafting objections to file with the ministry.

Roughly half a billion people in India have access to the internet, with approximately 300 million users on Facebook, more than 200 million on WhatsApp and tens of millions on Twitter.

“We think there is a lot of opportunity in India. We love the conversational nature of the society and culture,” said Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in an interview with Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) during a visit to India in November 2018. “We’re really excited to make Twitter viable to more and more people in the country.”

The new ‘intermediaries guidelines’ would also mandate companies to reveal the origin of a message when asked, which violates WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption privacy policy. The guidelines would also require companies with more than five million users in India to have a local office and a nodal officer for 24/7 coordination with law enforcement.

Internet company Mozilla Corp came out strongly against the guidelines, stating that the proposal was a “blunt and disproportionate solution to the problem of harmful content online”. Industry executives note that the guidelines would put the privacy of users at risk and would raise costs, as it would necessitate round-the-clock monitoring of content.

In preparation for India’s national elections, Facebook has been hiring integrity experts since October 2017. Key to its work will be increased advertising transparency by adding a disclaimer on all political ads about their origin. The social media giant will also implement learnings from elections in Brazil, the US (Congress and Senate midterms), Bangladesh and India (state elections).

Speaking about the Brazil elections, Katie Harbath, Facebook’s Global Politics and Government Outreach Director, told The Economic Times, “One of the biggest learnings was having a combination of native speakers and other integrity teams together in the rooms. Particularly, being able to explain what the content might say, and give context. Because, even with the translation but without context, we think something was violating our standards. Putting Portuguese speakers in Menlo Park [home of Facebook’s headquarters] interacting [with] teams, helped put things in context.”