India Publishes Ethics Code For Social Media And Streaming Platforms

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Digital platforms like Twitter and Amazon Prime Video that have faced the wrath of the Indian establishment in recent months will now know exactly what they can and cannot do.

The Indian government’s Information Technology published its “Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules 2021” on Thursday. It details the new rules that will govern the social media and streaming sector.

Social media platforms are not allowed to “host, store or publish any information prohibited by any law in relation to the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India: the security of the State; friendly relations with foreign States; public order; decency or morality; in relation to contempt of court; defamation; incitement to an offence, or information which violates any law for the time being in force.”

Earlier this month Indian government required Twitter to block hundreds of accounts that supported the ongoing farmer’s protests in Delhi and it was unhappy at the tardiness of the platform’s execution. Under the new rules, platforms have to remove or disable access to the offensive content within 36 hours of receiving a directive to do so.

“Social media platform can certainly be used for asking questions and (to) criticize,” said an Indian government statement. “Social media platforms have empowered ordinary users, but they need accountability against its misuse and abuse.”

Platforms are now required to appoint one of their employees as a ‘Resident Grievance Officer,’ who is resident in India and is an Indian passport holder. If users want to voluntarily verify their accounts, the platforms are required to enable this and provide a mark of verification visible to all users.

As for video streaming platforms, the code discusses levels of classification. “The most challenging themes (for example, drug misuse, violence, pedophilia, sex, racial or communal hatred or violence etc.) are unlikely to be appropriate at the junior levels of classification,” it states.

Elsewhere, the code is wide open to interpretation. “The tone of content can be an important factor in deciding the influence it may have on various groups of people,” says the code. “Thus, films/serials that have a dark and unsettling tone may receive a higher classification. Other tonal considerations that might have an influence on classification include the extent to which the content presents a view of the world that is anti-life, pessimistic, or despairing or the extent to which transgressive or harmful behavior is condoned or made to appear normal.”

Religion is the topic most likely to cause offence in India today, as evidenced by the umbrage taken by the ruling Hindu nationalist dispensation against Amazon’s “Tandav” and Netflix’s “A Suitable Boy.” The code is ambiguous on this point too.

“The category classification of a content will take into account the potentially offensive impact of a film on matters such as caste, race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality that may arise in a wide range of works, and the classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of their inclusion,” the code says.

The government is encouraging self-regulation in the streaming sector. Indeed, 17 of India’s leading streamers have adopted a self-regulation tool kit recently.

The new code requires streamers to form a self-regulatory body headed by a retired high court or supreme court judge. In due course, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting will publish a charter for self-regulating bodies.

“The proposed framework is progressive, liberal and contemporaneous,” claimed a government statement. “It seeks to address peoples’ varied concerns while removing any misapprehension about curbing creativity and freedom of speech and expression.”