Oversight mechanism for social media use
Notification of the amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021
Notification of the amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has paved the way for the establishment of Grievance Appellate Committees (GAC) and signalled tighter government control over significant social media intermediaries like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. Advocacy groups have opposed the new rules and implementation is also faced with challenges of disproportionate strength of oversight staff compared to rapidly growing internet subscribers. The government has defended its move stating that the amendments have been notified for a "major push towards an Open, Safe and Trusted and Accountable Internet" and are "aimed at protecting the rights of Digital Nagriks." Before the amendments, social media intermediaries were only required to inform users against uploading certain categories of harmful/unlawful content while the notified amendments make it legally obligatory for them to take reasonable efforts to prevent users from uploading such content. The IT (Digital Media) Rules define 'social media intermediary to be an intermediary which primarily or solely enables online interaction between two or more users and allows them to create, upload, share, disseminate, modify or access information using its services. The government notified "significant social media intermediaries" to be those intermediaries with 50 lakh registered users in India and are required to follow additional obligations of appointing a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person and a resident grievance officer all three of them residing in India and publishing monthly compliance report. Following the notification of the amendments, the Central Government shall set up one or more GACs within three months of application of the amended rules to allow users to appeal against the inaction of, or decisions taken by intermediaries on user complaints and users will have the right to approach courts for any remedy. Each GAC shall consist of a chairperson and two whole-time members appointed by the Central Government, of which one shall be a member ex-officio and two shall be independent members. Any person aggrieved by a decision of the Grievance Officer appointed by an intermediary may prefer an appeal to the GAC within thirty days from the date of receipt of communication from the Grievance Officer. The Central government says that intermediaries now will be expected to ensure that there is no uploading of content that intentionally communicates any misinformation or information that is patently false or untrue hence entrusting an important responsibility to intermediaries. This makes all social media platforms comply with Indian laws and respect the rights accorded to the citizens of India under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), in their submission on the amendment, insisted that the GAC is impractical and described it as a "government censorship body for social media" which it alleged, would make bureaucrats "arbiters of online free speech." The advocacy group argues that the creation of GAC is not just undesirable but also unfeasible because of the large volume of appeals filed against content moderation decisions taken by the intermediaries. "In absence of a legal or regulatory framework governing the resolution of disputes, there is likely to be an arbitrary "pick-and-choose policy" to determine a fraction of the appeals will be made this will lead to the appearance of the existence of bias," it alleged. The IFF's apprehension is that amended rules would incentivize social media platforms to suppress any speech that may not be palatable to the government, public officials, or those who can exert political pressure. Allaying such apprehension is necessary to assure internet users of exercising reasonable freedom of speech that poses no threat to peace, unity and integrity and the country's sovereignty. Appointment of an independent Grievance Appellate Committee could be more pragmatic to take up complaints relating to the inaction of the Grievance officer of social media intermediaries against objectionable content. Freedom of speech and expression granted by Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution is not absolute and the Article 19(2) allows the imposition of reasonable restrictions on exercising this right in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or about contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. The notified amendments, however, state that whether any content is defamatory or libellous will be determined through judicial review. India is a multi-religious, multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic society, abuse of social and digital media through posting irresponsible content can expose fault lines and disturb peace and harmony and there must be an effective mechanism to prevent it. Such a mechanism is transparent and rational and is critical to internet users having trust in it. Building Awareness of the importance of exercising self-regulation in the use of digital and social media is equally important.