Editorial . . . . . .
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s notification of the amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 paved the way for the creation of Grievance Appellate Committees (GAC) and hinted at tighter government control over significant social media intermediaries like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. The new regulations have met opposition from advocacy groups, and execution is complicated by the excessive strength of the oversight team relative to the fast increasing number of internet users. The government has defended its action, saying that the modifications are “intended to preserve the rights of Digital Nagriks” and have been announced as part of a “huge drive towards an Open, Safe, Trusted, and Accountable Internet.” Social media intermediaries are now legally compelled to make reasonable steps to stop users from sharing specific kinds of dangerous or illegal content. Prior to the revisions, they were merely required to warn users against uploading these types of content. According to the IT (Digital Media) Rules, a “social media intermediary” is a third party that primarily or exclusively facilitates online communication between two or more users and gives them access to its services to produce, upload, share, distribute, alter, or access information. A resident grievance officer, a chief compliance officer, and a nodal contact person, all of whom must be based in India, were added to the list of “important social media intermediaries” by the government. These intermediaries are also obliged to produce monthly compliance reports. Following notification of the amendments, the Central Government shall establish one or more GACs within three months of the application of the amended rules in order to give users the opportunity to appeal against the inaction of, or decisions made by, intermediaries on user complaints. Users will also have the option to seek redress in court. Each GAC will have a chairperson and two full-time members, two of whom will be independent members and one of whom will be a member ex-officio, all of whom will be chosen by the Central Government. Within thirty days of receiving notice from the Grievance Officer, anyone who feels wronged by a judgement made by the Grievance Officer assigned by an intermediary may submit an appeal to the GAC. According to the central government, intermediaries will henceforth be held accountable for preventing the upload of any content that knowingly spreads misleading information or information that is obviously incorrect or untrue. This places a significant obligation on intermediates. As a result, all social media sites must abide by Indian law and respect the rights guaranteed to Indian residents by Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Indian Constitution. In their comment regarding the amendment, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) claimed that the GAC is unworkable and referred to it as a “government censorship agency for social media” that would make bureaucrats “arbiters of online free speech.” Due to the numerous appeals made against the intermediaries’ content moderation judgments, the advocacy organisation claims that the creation of GAC is not only undesirable but also impractical. It was argued that the absence of a legal or regulatory framework governing dispute resolution is likely to lead to an arbitrary pick-and-choose policy to choose which appeals are lodged, which will create the appearance of discrimination. The IFF fears that the revised laws may encourage social media companies to censor any expression that may not be acceptable to the government, elected authorities, or anyone with the power to impose political pressure. To reassure internet users that they can exercise appropriate freedom of speech without endangering peace, unity, or the integrity of the nation, as well as its sovereignty, it is vital to allay their fears. It could be more practical to appoint an impartial Grievance Appellate Committee to handle complaints on the failure of social media intermediaries’ Grievance officers to take action against unacceptable content. The right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution is not unqualified, and Article 19(2) permits the imposition of reasonable limitations on the exercise of this right in the interests of India’s sovereignty and integrity, its security, its friendly relations with other countries, its public order, decency, or morality, or in cases involving judicial disobedience, defamation, or the incitement of criminal activity.
The notified revisions, however, stipulate that a judge would decide whether any text is libellous or defamatory. In the multi-religious, multi-lingual, and multi-ethnic society of India, inappropriate content posted on social media and other digital platforms can expose rifts and damage peace and tranquilly, thus there needs to be a strong system in place to stop this from happening. For internet consumers to trust it, a transparent, logical system like this one is essential. It is equally crucial to raise awareness of the need for self-control when using digital and social media.