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India may soon become the first country in the world to create an appeal panel with the power to reverse the content moderation decisions of social media firms. Recently, the government republished the draft changes to the IT rules a week after withdrawing them. The Ministry of Information Technology has sought public consultation and comments from the stakeholders on the proposed draft for amendments to the IT Rules 2021.
The new amendments
The IT Rules seek to build an internet that is ‘open, safe, trusted, and accountable’ for all the citizens. MeitY has notified all social media platforms that they should comply with the Indian Constitution strictly. The IT Rules also provide for the creation of a robust grievance redressal mechanism to act immediately when a user reports illegal or harmful information. Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are mandated to appoint an India based resident grievance officer as intermediaries with legal immunity from third party content on their platform.
The amendments require the social media platform to address any complaint regarding content removal within 72 hours. According to MeitY, the rule will help remove problematic content before it goes viral. The grievance officer should also implement safeguards to prevent the misuse of the redressal mechanism.
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Users can appeal against the grievance redressal process of the intermediaries, and the appeal should be addressed within 30 days. Currently, there is no appellate mechanism provided by intermediaries, nor is there any credible self-regulatory mechanism in place. Earlier, social media companies have been accused of de-platforming users without hearing their side.
Government vs social media firms
Last year, Twitter received several blocking orders from MeitY, of which only two emergency blocking orders were temporarily complied with. However, the social media company restored the tweets ‘in a manner that we (Twitter) believed was consistent with Indian law’.
Twitter said it would advocate for the rights of free expression. The company was also exploring options under the Indian law to ‘safeguard the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter’. We strongly believe that the Tweets should flow, the blog said.
Last year, Facebook-owned WhatsApp sued the Indian government for ‘oppressive internet rules’ that required the instant messaging platform to make messages traceable to the outside parties; the platform called these rules unconstitutional. WhatsApp’s officials said making the messages traceable would severely undermine the privacy of billions of users and effectively impair its security. The company said it would break end-to-end encryption and could lead to real abuse.
It looks like India wants to put the social media tech giants on a tight leash. Aruna Sundararajan, India’s secretary of telecommunications, said, “We don’t want to build walls, but at the same time, we explicitly recognise and appreciate that data is a strategic asset.” She further said India may not have been able to develop Tencent or Baidu or Alibaba because of a lack of nuance in the policies.
Interestingly, the new proposed amendments to the IT Rules 2021 apply only to the big-tech platforms while exempting early-stage or growth-stage Indian companies or startups like Koo, DailyHunt, etc.
Matter of concern
While the decision to keep a close watch on the big tech platforms is a good step, considering the highly digital world we live in, the new amendments are beset by loopholes. According to Delhi-based Internet Freedom observes, the new rules may impose impractical obligations on social media platforms and subject them to government oversight.
The IT Rules have considerable consequences for online freedom and privacy. It allows the government to censor content on social media, on-video entertainment, etc. Activists and privacy crusaders have appealed to MeitY to withdraw rules which may restrict the freedom of Indian internet users.