By Mohd. Naushad Khan

The new IT rules are designed to make social media compliant with Indian laws. And as per the amended rules, it is obligatory for intermediaries like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. to comply with the provisions of the Constitution of India and its sovereign laws. Expert opinionmakers and researchers, in due process of time, will evaluate the impact of these new IT rules and as to what extent it has served the very purpose.

According to the new IT rules, those with grievances related to suspensions, blocks, etc, by intermediaries like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram may now approach the three-member Grievance Appellate Committees (GACs)to be set up by the Government of India.

Intermediaries shall have to comply with orders of the GACs, according to the notification. The amended rules also provide for an online dispute resolution mechanism. A social media corporation, or “intermediary,” is required by the updated IT regulations to make sure that users don’t upload or distribute any information that isn’t their own.

The IT regulations also place responsibility on the intermediary to ensure that content placed on its platform does not violate the privacy of others, promote unlawful activity, or pose a threat to “the unity, integrity, defence, security, or sovereignty of India.” Intermediaries must now notify their users of these rules, regulations, and privacy policies at least once a year. One who is not satisfied with his complaint’s resolution may approach a GAC within 30 days. The GAC will try to resolve the appeal within one month.

Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees Equality before Law: “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India,” and ensures “Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.” However, Article 19 deals with the protection of certain rights of the Indian citizens regarding freedom of speech and others like the right to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. And also, Article 21 says, “Protection of life and personal liberty. No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.”

According to Dr. Narender Nagarwal, Faculty of Law, Delhi University, “The newly introduced amendments under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 on October 28, 2022 released by the Ministry of Electronics and IT, has raised concern among civil rights activists and legal fraternity. The latest amendments are being understood a vicious attempt to regulate the content of social media that are pretty critical towards the government.” 

On the concern of new IT rules, Dr. Nagarwal said, “The government has represented the whole exercise aiming to strengthen the grievances mechanism of all social media intermediaries (SMIs) but ostensibly the dark side of the amendment is to detect users and content creators who are pretty critical towards the government policies and exposing their falsehood through different social media platforms. According to latest amendment in IT Rules, 2021, all social media platforms are required to appoint resident grievance officers with a base in India as part of their due diligence as SMIs who are protected from liability for third-party content on their platform.

“Ostensibly such interreference violates the basic philosophy of freedom of speech and expression as enshrined under Articles 19, 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India.  The word “reasonable efforts” as mentioned in the rules suggest that the content which are “objectionable or prohibited content” can be removed by the SMI but no definition of what signify the “reasonable efforts”. Interestingly, the new rules didn’t address the issue of poisonous propaganda, hate speech and trolling against the prominent faces of media and civil society and their hateful content still continuing without any obstacles,” he observed. 

On the use and misuse of the new rules, Nagarwal said, “A new bureaucracy has been proposed in the new IT Rules in the name of Grievance Appellate Committee and the same may function under the state. It appears that this grievance system has been developed to give safe passage to paid trolls and ignore the legitimate complaints of the users. The timebound framework of resolution of complaint doesn’t mention that whether the complainant is satisfied with the resolution or not. If the complainant is not satisfied with the resolution, he can’t approach the higher authorities and only remedy available to him is judiciary.”

On the transparency regarding implementation of the new rule, Dr. Nagarwal said, “The presiding officers of appellate committees are to be from government, thus how can you expect justice will be done to the users. The chief concern of this ambitious amendment is without any legal authority the State seeks to regulate the content of social media and to the direct scrutiny of the government. Though the government has set up a separate bureaucracy by permitting users to appeal decisions of the SMI but how far the appellate body remains neutral is the core issue and whether the appellate body can function independently?  In a simple language, the amendment is nothing but re-establishment of the prerogative of state to reverse, review and moderation of the social media content and grievance appellate body decision shall be final until the court intervenes.” 

According to Syed Amir Ali Hashmi, Communication Professional, “Since the time social media usage picked up pace, especially after relaxed data usage policies by mobile service providers, abuse of the platform has been prevalent. Authorities have to ensure that the IT rules should be followed uniformly or not used as a political tool to suppress opposing voices. Also, there should be clarity as to what makes for a solid ground to flag off a certain conversation/ graphic/ video. Also, guidelines should be clear about sharing true incidents, which come under the purview of freedom of speech,” said Hashmi.

Sajid Nomani, working for Business Services Company, while sharing his perspective, said, “The new IT laws for Social Media in India by the government is a welcome move. This should help in maintaining peace, provided it does not target a particular community or a group. In my personal opinion, it is a privacy infringement. However, we Indians, are not so worried about privacy laws as most of us don’t have much to lose.”

“What I strongly believe is, instead of asking the app/ platform operator to furnish info, we should have our geeks to extract that info (the details of the originator of the message). This is important since their info may be biased on the basis of their region and geo-location. Whereas, the Indian geeks, under the government supervision, would be able to extract info basis of the issue we face in our country. Additionally, as a conclusion, I would also recommend to thoroughly, check the law, for its pros and cons, before blind implementation. This is important and in line with our legal system wherein ‘better to let hundred guilty escape than punish an innocent’ is the virtue,” argued Nomani.

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