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Penalising social media last resort, says Centre on new IT rules but critics wary

According to MoS IT ministry Rajeev Chandrasekhar, these rules are “indicative” of the Centre’s intention to ensure that the “internet remains safe, open and trusted”

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New Delhi: Union Minister of State for Electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar Saturday said that penalising social media companies for not complying with India’s laws would be a “last resort” and that the government prefers not to include punitive measures in laws. 

On Friday, the Centre released the final version of the new amendments to the IT rules that make it clear that social media intermediaries must comply with India’s laws.

The amended rules laid out a structure for the creation of a Centre-backed panel for grievance redressals, where users could file an appeal against a decision taken by a social media intermediary regarding particular posts. Chandrasekhar on Friday also said that India expects social media companies, regardless of their ownership, to comply with Indian laws, in the context of billionaire Elon Musk taking over control of microblogging site Twitter.

Also Read: ‘Singled out by govt’ — Twitter users could ‘jointly approach court’ as posts, handles blocked

“Safe and trusted internet space”

During his interaction with the media on Saturday regarding the new IT rules, Chandrasekhar explained how the Centre wants to build a partnership model with internet intermediaries in India. The absence of penalty structures in the new rules, he said, is indicative of the “common mission” of creating a “safe and trusted” internet space, adding that these rules will assign accountability to intermediaries and will also help citizens gain more choices in addressing grievances on more than one platform.

“We want to work in a partnership model to ensure our common collective objective for a safe and trusted internet for all our Indian citizens,” Chandrasekhar said. “So therefore this is not about making it difficult for anybody, making it about selectively targeting a company. This should be the collective notion for all the stakeholders of the internet. Our Government does not like to bring punitive measures into law. The need to incorporate penalties would be the last resort.”

The latest rules were released following a consultation process based on draft rules that were made public in June this year. During the consultation process, various bodies including some of the popular intermediaries pointed out that a government-controlled Grievance Appellate Committee (GAC), as recommended in the rules, would neither be independent nor democratic.

However, the IT minister, responding to a query on this aspect of the discourse, said that since there were “lakhs” of complaints that went unaddressed from citizens, the government had to intervene “reluctantly”.

“We had received lakhs of messages from digital nagriks and citizens that their grievances just were responded to with a ‘thank you for your message’ response or no response at all,” he explained. “That is not acceptable to us. When we say the internet should be open we say openness in a certain construct that includes accountability. If a citizen has a problem, real or imaginary, the obligation of the intermediary is to respond to that problem in a manner satisfactory… Till this does not happen, we need to keep looking for ways that it happens.”

The earlier rules needed intermediaries to just notify users of the rules and guidelines but now the “obligation” has expanded, according to the minister. He also said that if there is a need for “further modifications of rules” then the ministry will not “hesitate” in drafting a new law.

Also Read: Not just Modi govt’s tug-of-war with social media, balance of power shifting from users anyway

“Due diligence by intermediaries”

Apart from the complaint redressal panel, the rules also state that the intermediaries ranging from fintech, social media and e-commerce will have to ensure that there is “due diligence” in the sense that there has to be self-regulation over unlawful content, products and services and with misinformation.

“The intermediary has to make efforts to ensure that unlawful content is reported on the platform,” Chandrasekhar said. “In the broad category of the obligations of the intermediary to follow, we have added misinformation. Intermediaries should not be a party to any deliberate misinformation as content on their platforms. They also cannot be a party to content that is detrimental to national security.”

The minister also recalled the pushback by intermediaries such as Twitter regarding the IT rules and said that no firm should believe that their corporate and community guidelines will supersede the Constitution of India and the law of the land.

In the next 15 days the government will line up meetings with social media intermediaries to understand a way forward “collectively”.

Grievance Redressal Mechanism

In the latest rules, the GAC will comprise “a chairperson and two whole-time members appointed by the central government”. The IT ministry currently believes that the grievance redressal mechanism that was initially set by intermediaries is “broken”. The reason for the creation of such a body, Chandrasekhar said, was that the existing system–where the government simply specified that intermediaries had to appoint a grievance officer–is “broken, and not functioning”.

“There is a question from the industry on the GAC, whether it can morph into a self-regulatory organisation,” he said. “The government is not really interested in playing the role of ombudsman here. It is not something that we have the capacity and capability to do, but this is the responsibility we are taking up reluctantly. Because currently, the grievance redressal mechanism is not functioning as it should be and the accountability promise that we have made to the citizens of India is not being met,” he further added.

Experts wary 

Critics, however, continue to feel that the process is “undemocratic” and will not benefit the users.

While Tejasi Panjiar, associate policy counsel at Internet Freedom Foundation, acknowledged that the sheer amount of complaints and appeals had overwhelmed the social media companies, she said that there is no guarantee that the government will act independently without infusing its own biases.

“We attended the consultations that took place in June and then too we heard a similar narrative wherein the ministry felt that the intermediaries were failing to handle this properly,” Panjiar told ThePrint. 

“The big issue is that there is already a lot of proximity of the government with the social media intermediaries and their influence will affect the latter’s decisions.” 

The lack of transparency in the GAC formation, who will be part of it, and how will it function is still jarring, she added. “We have to remember that these are big companies, and all the social media intermediaries have also struggled to address the unending complaints and appeals by users,” Panjiar explained. “There is no clarity as to how the GAC will pick and choose complaints since there will be a behemoth of appeals.” 

The lack of independence is also an aspect of concern since one would have to look at the posts that get to stay as opposed to the ones that are taken down. “Even that may be subject to bias if there is an increase in intervention,” Panjiar said.

According to Tanmay Singh, a senior advocate associated with the Internet Freedom Foundation, the new rules might create a situation where social media intermediaries may resort to censoring content themselves rather than fall afoul of the government’s rules.

“This will lead to social media intermediaries defaulting towards censorship, due to the sheer number of reports they will receive,” Singh said. “Many social media platforms will feel that it may be better to comply with the [new IT] Rules by stifling free speech and taking down posts and accounts.”

(Edited by Anumeha Saxena)

Also Read: Can govt take your tweet down without saying why? What Modi govt vs Twitter row in HC is about


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