India's cybersecurity bill is getting a final version after window to submit comments closing on Tuesday, and tech firms are anxious. Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter will have to hand over their users' identities to the Indian government if asked under new laws.

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TikTok is one of the apps affected by the new cybersecurity laws

These laws are consistent with many governments in other countries trying to regulate social media companies. A lot of content whether fake news, bigoted content, child pornography, terrorism incitements, etc. are targets of these cybersecurity laws.

But the problem in India is the new guidelines demand immediate cooperation with gov't requests if asked, without warrants or court orders.

What are the New Cybersecurity laws?

India put up these laws back in December of 2018 and requested public input. A trade group called The Internet and Mobile Association of India said that the new laws "would be a violation of the right to privacy recognized by the Supreme Court”. The trade group has Facebook, Amazon, and Alphabet, owner of Google, as its members in India.

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Many major tech and social media companies also need to deal with new laws

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology will soon be publishing the cyber laws without significant changes. NN Kaul, media advisor to the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology said that “The guidelines for intermediaries are under process”.

“We cannot comment on the guidelines or changes till they are published,” he added.

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The companies would have to identify rumor origins within 72 hours

In an earlier draft of the bill, the rules had required YouTube, ByteDance, Facebook or WhatsApp to help the gov't identify a post's origins within 3 days. Then the social media companies would have to keep records for at least 180 days for investigators.

Then they would have to start a brick-and-mortar operation in India and appoint a grievance officer and a government liaison. While the language and content continue to be subject to change, the fundamental laws would in all likelihood remain the same.

Why do we need these laws?

Globally, government agencies have been trying to get tech and social media companies to abide by new internet and cybersecurity regulations. Measures include identifying users, unlocking smart devices or simply working with official investigations, usually terrorism issues.

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Too much fake news, particularly on Whatsapp, has been the cause of new laws

While in India, a concerning phenomenon has been on the rise lately, and that is fake news. Many fake news and reports of organ-harvesting and child-kidnappings have been making the rounds on WhatsApp. These have led to real mob violence and dozens of lynchings in just two years from 2017 to 2018.

But WhatsApp denied a government request to identify the origins of these rumors. They said the service must provide privacy and end-to-end encryption for hundreds of millions of Indians. The company instead wanted to do research on how to prevent fake news and had a public awareness campaign on fake news.

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Fake news has real consequences

With a user base of over 2 billion worldwide, WhatsApp has been adamant about its privacy feature. After all, it is one of the biggest draws. The company said it would "not compromise on security because that would make people less safe".

“For even more protection, we work with top security experts, employ industry-leading technology to stop misuse as well as provide controls and ways to report issues — without sacrificing privacy," said WhatsApp.

Why these laws could be troublesome

Meanwhile, other tech and social companies, including civil rights groups have criticized the new cybersecurity laws. They said these encourage more censorship and abusive behavior, and more legal burdens on small, budding companies.

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New laws are worrying when the gov't already shut down the internet hundreds of times

Executives from Mozilla, GitHub and Cloudfare had even sent an open letter to MEIT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. They pointed out "automated censorship" and increased surveillance due to new laws.

This is because to track down the origin of a fabricated rumor, the companies would have to spy on users and weaken encryption. These would violate the right to privacy that Indians enjoy when logging on these apps, said the companies.

When money speaks, truth keeps silent. USD140 million: the fake news
It's up to us to fight fake news, not just the government

Although, the new cybersecurity laws would not affect those like Mozilla or Wikipedia. Exemptions include "browsers, operating systems, online repositories of knowledge, and software development platforms". It's the social media and messaging companies that need to worry.

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