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Social media users can be protected with stricter rules in place: IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in Rajya Sabha

The minister’s suggestion to make regulations tougher comes amid growing threats to the online safety of women.

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The Indian government is willing to come up with strict social media rules if there is consensus among all political parties, according to the Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw. He was responding to a supplementary question posed by MP Sushil Kumar Modi in the Rajya Sabha on February 4.

The question was regarding action taken by the Indian government against the “Bulli Bai” app creators. Vaishnaw responded that the government dealt with the “sensitive” matter proactively by initiating an investigation.

Vaishnaw contended that the government is accused of curbing freedom of speech whenever it tries to make social media more accountable but it is not the case. He added that the rules need to be made stricter to protect users.

“We need to bring balance and consensus in our society to make social media accountable to ensure the safety and security of our women and our future generations,” the minister said.

The Indian government has already devised a regulatory framework for social media intermediaries, digital news publishers, and OTT platforms by releasing the IT Rules last year which have been challenged in various courts on account of their overreach and infringement of rights. The IT minister’s comments suggest that the government might not shy away from coming up with a new set of rules which may prove to be more prohibitive than the IT Rules.

How many digital publishers have complied with the IT Rules?

In response to another question by Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Vishwam, the Indian government revealed that more than 2,100 digital publishers have furnished the requisite information stipulated under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 to the government.

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The Rules require digital publishers to furnish certain information to the government which includes documents to enable communication and coordination. The information had to be submitted within a month of the rules being notified.

The ministry said that there are several hundreds of thousands of intermediaries on the internet.

“MeitY, suo moto, does not track compliance by intermediaries, but relies on the reporting by the users of non-compliance if any,” the response said.

It was also revealed that the Inter-Departmental Committee (as mandated by rule 14 of the IT Rules) has conducted two meetings on blocking access to certain websites and social media accounts of digital news publishers.

What is the IDC? This committee makes up the third tier in the grievance redressal mechanism established under the IT Rules. It involves government oversight by representatives from MeitY and MIB as well as ministries of Defence, External Affairs, Law, CERT-in, among others. The committee is headed by the Authorised Officer of the MIB. It issues guidelines, advisories, orders and directions for adherence to the Code of Ethics. This committee is supposed to meet periodically and hear complaints coming from Level I and II appeals and those referred by the MIB.

Lowdown on the Bulli bai app case

More than 100 Muslim women, several of them journalists, activists, and actresses, were listed for a fake online auction on a GitHub-made app called ‘Bulli Bai’ late last year. Their photographs were sourced and uploaded to the app without their knowledge, and they were then reportedly offered as ‘bulli bai’ – an offensive term for Muslim women – to users at random.

Later, five persons were arrested in connection with the Bulli Bai app. The main accused was identified by police as a 21-year-old engineering student who is reportedly the owner of the GitHub account (on which the app was hosted) and the app’s main Twitter handle.

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The Internet Freedom Foundation and Editors Guild of India have spoken up against online harassment of women in connection with the Bulli Bai incident.

IFF requested the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT to investigate the matter. In a letter to Shashi Tharoor, the chairperson of the Standing Committee, IFF said that creators of the Bulli Bai app violated the privacy of the women who were targeted, by sourcing their personal photos from their social media accounts.

The Editors Guild of India, in a letter to the government, pointed out that Muslim women were ‘auctioned’ on at least two open source apps created on the GitHub platform, which included journalists critical of the present dispensation.

“Though law enforcement agencies have arrested those supposedly behind such apps, there is need for further investigation in order to ensure that all those behind such despicable acts even beyond those arrested, are brought to justice.” — Editors Guild of India .

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I cover several beats such as crypto, telecom, and OTT at MediaNama. I will be loitering at my local theatre and consuming movies by the dozen when I am off work.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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