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regular-article-logo Sunday, 26 May 2024

Social media self-rule ‘still an option’

Open to platforms settling complaints: Minister

Our Special Correspondent New Delhi Published 30.10.22, 12:59 AM
The Centre expects that the amended rules will force intermediaries to realise that accountability is a key user demand and respond to grievances better.

The Centre expects that the amended rules will force intermediaries to realise that accountability is a key user demand and respond to grievances better. Representational picture

The government on Saturday indicated that it was still open to self-regulation by social media platforms, saying the lackadaisical approach of big tech firms like Twitter, YouTube and Meta was why it had to come up with the idea of grievance appellate committees to protect online users.

The government had on Friday notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2022, which provide for the grievance appellate committees (GACs). The Centre expects that the amended rules will force intermediaries to realise that accountability is a key user demand and respond to grievances better.

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“One scenario is that they (platforms) address (complaints) through a grievance redressal mechanism — they create more capacity. If they don’t, then (the) grievance appellate committee creates capacity,” IT minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar told reporters.

“It is not an area the government is keen to get into; we are doing it reluctantly. We are doing it because we have an obligation and duty to digital nagriks (citizens) that their grievances should be heard.”

The Internet Freedom Foundation agreed that the “non-transparent decision-making by social media platforms” was a worry, but expressed fear that the GACs would allow the government to control “what content (is) displayed by platforms”.

Supreme Court lawyer N.S. Nappinai, the founder of Cybersaathi, which focuses on safety in digital spaces, said: “The sustainability of the introduction of a grievance appellate committee is suspect as the process adverts to ‘online dispute resolution’, thereby implying that the committee would be an adjudicating body. The vires of this introduction are bound to be contested.”

Chandrasekhar said the government would soon “make an announcement about its (grievance appellate committee) structure, constitution, scope and terms of reference”.

The amended rules say: “Each grievance appellate committee 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.”

Chandrasekhar said: “We will start with 1-2 GACs.... Government is not interested in playing the role of the ombudsman. It is a responsibility we are taking reluctantly

because the grievance mechanism is not functioning properly.

“It is our fond hope that intermediaries will do a better job of dealing with grievances at their level, so overflow on the appellate process will be minimised.”

Chandrasekhar told Reuters that grievance panels set up by tech firms “cannot be a cosy club of industry people” and should have consumer and government representation.

He emphasised that the GACs — one or two to start with — will not substitute the civil court system, and their decisions can be challenged in court.

Under the amended rules, the entire appeal process in the GAC, from the filing of the appeal to the decision on it, would be conducted in the digital mode.

To a question, Chandrasekhar said the government would not prefer punitive action for non-compliance at this stage but would consider it if the situation so demands in future.

The government had asked the sector to develop a self-regulatory model, but the initiative was thwarted by a lack of agreement on a framework among the major platforms.

Meta, Twitter and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment, Reuters reported.

Twitter had faced a backlash in the past after it blocked accounts of influential Indians, including politicians, citing violation of its policies. It had also locked horns with the government last year when it declined to comply fully with orders to take down accounts the government said were spreading misinformation.

Chandrasekhar said that while social media norms required platforms to remove illegal content within 72 hours of being flagged, he felt the timeline was “too long” and platforms should take down such content “as fast as possible”.

He said the IT ministry had been keen on prescribing a 24-hour deadline given the “virality and velocity” of misinformation, but had settled for 72 hours after wide consultations.

“Frankly, I am of the opinion that 72 hours is too long.... It was 24 hours during the consultation, but it was widely felt that this is still early days and let us keep it at 72 hours and then progressively as the platforms gain capacity and capability, we will create a shorter window,” the minister said.

His message to social media platforms: “Letter of IT rules says 72 hours but the spirit should be ‘as fast as possible’.” The subject of complaints may range from content related to child sexual abuse and nudity to trademark and patent infringements; misinformation and impersonation; content threatening the unity and integrity of the country; and “objectionable” content that promotes “enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion or caste with the intent to incite violence”.

Nappinai said: “It’s imperative for MeiTy (IT ministry) to clarify that the 24-hour mandate for takedowns of violent imagery of women and children is not affected by the intermediate 72-hour timeline introduced by these amendments.”

The Internet Freedom Foundation said: “The notified rules will incentivise platforms to remove/ suppress any speech unpalatable to the government or those exerting political pressure and increase government control & power since the government will be effectively able to also decide what content must be displayed by platforms….

“Further, while non-transparent decision-making by social media platforms on decisions such as ‘deplatforming’ users is concerning, creating a GAC is not the right approach.”

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