regular-article-logo Sunday, 01 October 2023

Tug of war: Centre's IT rules

The row between the Centre and global social media giants has several dimensions

The Editorial Board Published 29.05.21, 12:21 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. Shutterstock

The slugfest over the new rules governing digital intermediaries has turned scrappy with the Narendra Modi government ready to rip the legal protection afforded to global social media platforms that have dared to trigger a debate over its brutal methods to quell free speech. Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Twitter have decided to dig their heels in and stand up to the intimidation. WhatsApp has filed a case in the Delhi High Court, challenging certain provisions of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 that require it to unmask originators of messages on its platform that the authorities deem to be offensive. Twitter sparked a flutter when it accused the government and its minions of trying to intimidate its officials in India after the platform tagged certain tweets of senior ruling party politicians under the ‘manipulated media’ rubric. The Jack Dorsey-owned firm enraged the government when it said it was ready to engage in constructive discussions with the government in order to remove the odious provisions in the new IT rules that it felt were designed to inhibit free speech. The Centre responded with a bellicose statement in which it questioned the locus of a for-profit, private company for having the temerity to suggest amendments to the laws of the land instead of abiding by them.

The big beef is over the new rules that were framed on February 25 that require significant social media intermediaries — entities with a user base in India of over five million — to create a grievance redressal mechanism within a period of three months manned by officers based in the country to address complaints of users and take down content that is deemed objectionable. The social media platforms have baulked at the directive as they view this as a blatant attempt to strangle free speech. These intermediaries have often refused to heed orders to take down politically-coloured content or reveal the identities of those who posted them in the first place. WhatsApp has argued that it cannot do so because it uses end-to-end encryption to ensure that messages shared between two or more people remain private.

The government has no patience with such scruples and has issued veiled threats to these platforms that they could end up jeopardizing the considerable revenues they earn from their local operations. Twitter has faced a lot of heat over its content moderation decisions in several jurisdictions, such as the United States of America, Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom. The Indian government has argued that the laws relating to social media content in some of these countries are far more onerous. This assertion needs to be examined. The question is not over the wording of the legislation but the invidious intent that lurks behind it. Legal experts contend that Indian laws are so broadly framed that they will allow government agencies to act on mere suspicion and embark on fishing expeditions to ferret out and prosecute critics of the government and its policies. Both sides need to see reason and act with maturity; threats and accusations will benefit no one.

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