In a significant step, the Government has clarified in Parliament that there is no proposal at present to bring in a separate law to ensure and authenticate all social media accounts or for linking a government identity with social media accounts of individuals.
This was stated by the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology in the Lok Sabha on 30th March 2022, by way of a statement laid on the Table of the House in response to a starred question.
This in effect means that the Government does not intend to make verification of social media accounts mandatory as of now. At present, the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“IT Rules, 2021”) , notified in February 2021, provides that a significant social media intermediary (“SSMI”) shall enable users who register for their services from India, or use their services in India, to voluntarily verify their accounts by using any appropriate mechanism, including the active Indian mobile number of such users.
This issue of authentication / verification of social media accounts assumes importance from the perspective of addressing misinformation and fake news which is known to be spread online by social media accounts, often under the cloak of anonymity afforded by social media.
Steps taken to address misinformation as per the statement of the government –
The response in the Lok Sabha further stated that the Government has already notified the IT Rules, 2021 under the Information Technology Act 2000 (“IT Act”) to make social media platforms accountable to their users and enhance user safety online.
The statement acknowledged the risks and dangers posed by the growing phenomenon of fake news and dissemination of wrong information through various social media platforms and noted that it was a global challenge to identify and stop the spread of fake news on social media.
While it was made clear that there is no proposal in the works to make authentication of social media accounts mandatory, the statement also laid out certain steps that have been taken by the Government to address the challenges of misinformation and rumours spreading via various online media platforms. These steps include the following provisions:
- IT Rules 2021, which require Intermediaries to follow various due diligence norms, including informing their users not to host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update or share any information that is harmful, objectionable, and unlawful. They are also required to remove any unlawful content (as specified in the regulation) upon receiving “actual knowledge” either through a court order or through a notice by the appropriate government or its agency.
- A SSMI primarily providing messaging services, is required to identify the first originator of information for the purposes of taking action against offences related to the sovereignty, integrity and security of India, public order and sexually explicit material.Under Section 69A of the IT Act, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY”) can block information in any computer resource, in the interest of sovereignty, integrity and security of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order.
- A Fact Check Unit has been setup under the Press Information Bureau of Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in November, 2019 to take cognizance of fake news.
- MeitY through a program, named Information Security Education & Awareness (ISEA), creates awareness among users on the importance of following ethics while using the Internet and advising them not to share rumours or fake news. A dedicated website for information security awareness provides all the relevant awareness material.
The anonymity offered by social media is a double edged sword. While on one hand, it may safeguard the privacy of individuals and help in the free and open exchange of ideas, on the other hand, it can lead to spread of misinformation, rumours and even hate by entities hiding behind false identities. The adequacy and effectiveness of the steps taken to address issues of fake news and hate speech may be a matter of further debate. However, in the absence of a data protection legislation at present, the decision to not mandate linking of government identification with social media accounts or otherwise impose a mandatory verification requirement on social media accounts, appears unobjectionable.