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IT rules draft to be back with revisions

The release of a draft proposal — seeking public comments on some amendments to Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021– and its hasty withdrawal has offered some glimpse into the government plans vis-à-vis social media platforms.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology or MeitY had come out with the new IT rules last year –which came into effect from 26th May, 2021. The rules put in place a framework for content regulation by online publishers of news and current affairs content, and curated audio-visual content. The aim of the 2021 rules was to make social media and internet companies — having more than five million users– more accountable for the content on their platforms.

The 2021 rules had mandated that social media intermediaries publish rules to curb posting and sharing of content which is inflammatory, objectionable, hateful, racially and ethnically objectionable etc. The online intermediaries were also told to appoint a nodal officer in India who is available round-the-clock to help law enforcement agencies. Through the rules, the government had prescribed a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism.

But, so far, if any user was not satisfied with any social media platform’s grievance redressal system, he had only one option, and that was to approach court.

On June 1, the draft that MeitY had put on its website proposed setting up of government panels to address such grievances. The draft was taken back the next day for some changes.

So, before the government amends the proposed amendments to the IT rules and comes out with a new version, let us see what all it had proposed.

One of the key proposals of the draft was that the government would establish one or more Grievance Appellate Committees, which would be made up of a chairperson and other members appointed by the government. Under this amendment, a user would be able to appeal a grievance officer’s order in front of the committee within 30 days of receiving it from the former.

For its part, the committee would have to endeavour to resolve the appeal within 30 days of receiving it. And, the concerned intermediary would have to comply with every order passed by the Grievance Appellate Committee. The 2021 rules did not have a provision for such a Grievance Appellate Committee.

Pavan Duggal, Cyberlaw Authority and Advocate, Supreme Court of India says Grievance Appellate Committee proposal is a step in the right direction. It adds another level that will reduce the quantum of social media litigation, he says adding that any additional compliance will be seen as onerous. But, we need to strike a golden balance between the rights of users and intermediaries, says Dugga.

The draft said that an intermediary would have to acknowledge a user complaint received by its grievance officer within 24 hours. This would specifically apply when the complaint in question is about user or account suspension, removal, and blocking.

Also, if the complaint is for the removal of information or links that infringe copyrights, are pornographic, or are defamatory, among other things. The concerned intermediary would have to respond to requests for removal within 72 hours. However, the draft also said that the platforms were allowed to set up safeguards against the misuse of such provisions.

Under the 2021 Rules, an intermediary has to acknowledge a complaint sent to the grievance officer within 24 hours and dispose of it within a period of 15 days from the date of receipt.

Duggal continues, proposed reduced timelines for grievance redressal need to be even shorter. Moreover, shorter timelines justified as intermediaries earning from data of Indians in absence of data protection law, he says. SC has held that intermediaries cannot be judges.

Under the 2021 rules, big social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, were also mandated to enable the identification of the ‘first originator’ of any information that undermines the sovereignty of India, security of the state, or public order.

It is clear that some changes to the country’s technology and social media regulations are in the offing, even if we don’t know their exact contours at the moment. This will have a significant impact on social media giants, for whom India is a key market, which has not saturated yet and has upside potential left to it. According to statista, more than 50 per cent of India’s population was accessing social networks in 2020. By 2025, it is estimated that social network penetration would be 67 per cent of the country’s population.

As of February 2021, affordable data and mobile phones, along with the government’s Digital India initiative, have resulted in India’s digital population reaching approximately 624 million active users. According to statista, India is the world’s second-largest internet market at this stage.

However, even with the overhang of possibly onerous regulations, India is a market social media and tech giants cannot afford to ignore, and that’s not just because of its size, but also because of the revenue it generates.

As domestic media companies have lost ground and revenue, Google and Facebook have emerged as the main beneficiaries of India’s booming internet advertising market. According to a media report, recently, the combined ad revenues of Google and Facebook came out to be higher than the combined ad revenues of the top 10 listed traditional media companies.

However, one major concern, which is whether or not the now-withdrawn draft proposals, or the ones that will come out soon, will lead to enhanced government censorship needs to be addressed. Business Standard

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