The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has issued draft modifications to the Information Technology Rules 2021, stating that these would guarantee that the Constitutional rights of Indians are not breached by Big Tech platforms. The ministry notified users that the draft amendment is being provided for public discussion and remarks from all patrons for the next 30 days from June 6 onward.
The ministry recommends the formation of government-appointed appeal committees that will be able to ban content-moderation resolutions taken by social media mediators namely Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Earlier, in the first week of June, the ministry had published a draft with the same suggestion but removed it within hours. The new draft, proposed by the MeitY is largely the same as the earlier proposal. Furthermore, the Minister of State for Electronics and IT, Rajeev Chandrashekhar said that the ministry is open to an industry-wide “self-regulatory framework” if Big Tech platforms are ready to tackle users’ complaints and appeals in a suitable mode.
Earlier in February 2021, the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics) Rules were enforced. The Rules brought in additional compliance obligations for significant social media intermediaries (SSMIs). A few of them were regarding the appointment of the chief compliance officer, nodal person for coordination, and grievance officer. It also compelled SSMIs to find the first originator of information on their platform. SSMIs are platforms with more than 5 million subscribers. The Rules also brought in a three-tier scheme for managing complaints relating to streaming facilities and the online news business. At the first level, complaints are managed within the organisation, at the second, a self-regulatory body, and at the third, a government-run committee that can supersede any decision taken by the other two bodies.
From the time when the Rules came into effect in May 2021, many social media boards, news publishers conflicted with the Union government regarding compliance with and numerous provisions of the IT Rules 2021. A few appeals are also lodged in courts challenging the rules. Even though finally, intermediaries complied with the rules, the Union government still had some doubts about the manner it was being complied with. This was understandable when the MeitY while publishing the draft, mentioned that amendments will guarantee “actual enforcement of requirements in IT Rules 2021 in letter and spirit”.
There are several cases lodged in many courts across the country concerning the legality of the IT Rules 2021. Numerous provisions like the traceability mandate of the IT Rules, which would require platforms like WhatsApp, and Signal to break encryption, have been challenged. However, recently, the Supreme Court of India suspended proceedings before the high courts in cases connecting Information Technology.
The draft amendment to the IT Rules 2021 suggests establishing government-appointed committees that will be authorised to evaluate and perhaps reverse content moderation decisions implemented by social media firms.
The Ministry also mentioned that every order passed by the grievance panel shall be obeyed by the concerned intermediary. It means if users are not pleased with the content moderation verdict pronounced by a company’s grievance officer, they can appeal that judgment before the recommended government-appointed appeals committee. As per present rules, grievance officers have 15 days to act on and clear out users’ protests. The planned attempt assumes importance against the backdrop of instances of accounts, comprising that of celebrities, being blocked by social media platforms such as Twitter for suspected breach of corresponding community guidelines.
The amendment will mainly influence the complaint redressal system of Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, Google including YouTube, Twitter, Telegram, and other major social media intermediaries. The government mentioned the grievance appellate committee has been proposed to provide a substitute system, other than courts, for finding help concerning issues relating to account removals and suspensions. It is not yet clear whether the committee will be under the government or a sovereign body.
Although social media platform owners can claim they have the right to determine what goes in and what’s taken down, the truth is that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter cannot be considered as any other private organisation. They exercise huge influence on the social, economic, and political consequences of society. Therefore, social media entities, left to themselves, can neither be believed to support freedom of speech and user privacy nor be unbiased in content moderation.