Social media is an integral part of most people’s lives today. A study found that Indians spend about 2.4 hours per day on social media, a number in line with the global average. Social media is also where an increasing number of people get a majority of their news- Whatsapp forwards, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and Youtube videos all contribute greatly to how we view the world. This decentralization of information dissemination, while it comes with many advantages, has also given rise to a considerable proportion of unregulated, misleading claims. The false content has become so prevalent that it influences people’s sentiments and shapes their worldview, with some very real consequences in terms of elections. A similar phenomenon can be observed in the United States, where there have been several claims as to how Facebook movements were responsible for spreading false information through voters.
In light of all of this, the new statement from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology about the upcoming digital media rules may come as a relief. The actual rules are yet to be notified, but the statement summarizes what it claims are the key points, and assures the public that these new Rules are meant to “empower ordinary users” by providing a redressal mechanism. The government assures at least four times in the statement that it’s not stifling free speech. The rationale given for the new laws mentions multiple forms of misuse- fake news, revenge porn, unethical attacks born from corporate rivalry, abusive language, defamatory and obscene contents, and blatant respect to religious sentiments. It also mentions financial fraud, terrorist recruitment, the spread of disharmony, and the incitement of violence and attack on public order. The government has claimed the upcoming framework is based on models in other countries including Singapore, Australia, EU and the UK.
The statement lists the following as salient features of the upcoming guidelines:
– Due diligence requirement by intermediaries.
– Establishment of a grievance redressal mechanism.
– Provision for the removal of obscene content within 24 hours of receipt of the complaint.
It also divides social media platforms into two categories, with the “significant social media intermediaries” being subject to more regulations. The government has yet to notify which platforms fall into this category, but it is based on the number of users on the platform.
Significant social media platforms are also required to comply with the following;
– Appointment of officers to coordinate with law enforcement agencies and to ensure compliance with the Act and Rules.
– Provision for the identification of the first originator of the information, for the purpose of “prevention … and prosecution” of a myriad of offences, including ones which are related to “the sovereignty and integrity of India” or “sexually explicit and child sexual abuse material.” The intermediary is also not required to disclose any information to the first originator.
– Provision for voluntary user verification mechanism.
– In case of the intermediaries removing or disabling access to users, they must be given a chance for representation.
– Intermediaries are required to take down information on being notified by the appropriate government, again in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India.
– A code of Ethics to be followed by significant platforms as well as online news and digital media entities.
– Self-classification of content by publishers into film rating categories; U, U/A 7+, U/A, U/A 16+ and A, with parental locks for higher categories of content.
– A three-level grievance redressal mechanism. Level 1 being the submission to the aforementioned grievance redressal officer, Level II being a proposed self-regulatory body presided by a retired judge or independent eminent person, and Level III being an oversight mechanism formulated by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
So what does all of this mean for social media users and the public in general?
First of all, we must keep in mind that these are just the objectives laid down by the Ministry in their own words, and that actual Rules may be slightly (but significantly) different and so we cannot make any concrete judgements till they come out.
Media regulations are tricky territory. The significant reach and power of social media means that it can be used for plenty of harmful things. On the other hand, what counts as “harmful” differs vastly from person to person. The line between criticism and crassness is blurry on both sides of the aisle, and from the cursory description provided, the new rules are likely to exacerbate that.
The ideal degree of control over social media has been hotly debated for years now. Different countries, of course, have different standards- the USA’s constitutional and absolute freedom of speech is nowhere near the same as India’s “freedom of speech unless it threatens public order.” It’s interesting to note that of the four governments stated as inspiration, three have no public order or anti-nationalism codicils to freedom of speech, and have structured their laws accordingly. The EU, for example, has an initiative to promote media literacy and dialogue, something notably absent from the framework summary. Singapore is the outlier, with stricter content regulations that have come under some scrutiny. Singapore is also a tiny country with comparatively lesser divisions of tradition and personality between its’ citizens, so a direct comparison of effects would be incomplete at best.
The Indian government has also not had, shall we say, the best track record when it comes to freedom of speech. Political and personal interests influence the viewpoint of the dissenters so it’s not a matter of black and white- but at the end of the day, these effectively chilling and censoring tactics are far removed from the “everyone fight it out in the court of public opinion” those of us who grew up on social media are familiar with. (Which may not be a bad thing, actually. To a point.)
The laws are not all ambivalent, of course. The measures against revenge porn in particular are not likely to garner any criticism. In addition, the measures proposed for non-significant social media platforms do seem to be “progressive, liberal and contemporaneous,” as claimed. And this is still the statement about the regulations, so we’ll probably need to re-evaluate assumptions when the actual notification comes out.
Author: Varsha Valsaraj, Legal Associate at PA Legal.
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