Regulating Social Media

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The new rules should not be used to keep out dissent

The central government has announced a three-tier regulatory mechanism for social media which might trigger a debate on what exactly constitutes content that should be taken down. The rules have come in the wake of the Centre’s conflict with Twitter on taking down certain handles. According to the rules, social media platforms are required to become “more responsible and more accountable” for the content they carry. There is also a list of subjects that is going to be deemed offensive. It is a list that may need a keen debate.  The new rules require the social media and OTT platforms to take down contentious content quickly, appoint grievance redressal officers and assist investigations. The rules are designed to curb misuse of social media platforms, and would henceforth require WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other social media firms as well as streaming services such as Netflix, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video to appoint executives to coordinate with law enforcement, disclose the first originator of the mischievous information and remove, within 24 hours, content depicting nudity or morphed pictures of women.

The government has defended the regulatory guidelines on the ground that they were “soft-touch regulations” which were aimed at creating a level playing field for print, TV media, social media and films and entertainment shows on television channels. The social media companies and OTT platforms will have to identify the first originator of messages which are deemed mischievous by the government. What is more, they will have to pull down “unlawful content” on their platforms within 36 hours of it being flagged by appropriate agencies, be it the government or courts. Streaming services like Netflix and Google’s YouTube are expected to classify content in categories according to age.

The rules have come in the wake of the fierce debate going on in the country to draw the boundaries between free speech and objectionable publications. The new rules will require  digital news media organisations also to follow its directions to remove any content, which is found to be objectionable from the point of view of law and order, country’s sovereignty, integrity, or friendly relations with neighbouring countries as per the provisions made under Section 69A of the IT Act. The definition of “objectionable” is bound to be disputed.  The Centre decided to formulate rules after it came under severe attack on social media platforms for its handling of farmers’ protests. A number of cases have been filed against activists for uploading content on social media platforms, which the government felt was seditious in nature. Though the government tried to contain the spread of messages on social media, it could not enforce its writ in absence of appropriate laws to deal with the alleged violations. Several cases went to the court. In one case, that of a young climate activist Disha Ravi, the court came out heavily against the Delhi police for arresting her without any evidence of her association with any Khalistani organisations or her role in inciting violence on January 26 on the day of farmers’ tractor rally. The Disha Ravi case brought to the fore the debate between the importance of dissent in a democracy.

It has to be seen how the new regulatory mechanism will affect the right to free speech and dissent. According to the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), the proposed regulation was “unconstitutional” as the oversight mechanism was being created without any legislative backing. Their plea is that the purview of the IT Act 2000 does not extend to news media, and so the guidelines do not have the legislative backing to regulate news media. The legal experts believe tracing originators could be susceptible to falsification and also to breaking encryption. The enforcement of the new rules would have to be without bias. There are social media handles and posts in favour of the present regime that too should be regulated for offensive and malicious and provocative content. It remains to be seen how the authorities handle the situation and make sure it was not used to silence critics. The Centre would have to do a tightrope walk as it should not turn into a witch hunt to muzzle freedom of speech.