Legal experts, industry bodies demand probe and stricter laws for Facebook

Debangana Ghosh | | | Updated on: Oct 28, 2021

Intermediary status under the new IT Rules will give special protection to Facebook

As reports on Facebook by whistle blower Frances Haugen continues to unearth information on sharing of hate speech and violent content in India, legal experts, industry bodies and stakeholders are seeking stricter regulations and investigation into the allegations. Intermediary status under the new IT Rules will give special protection to Facebook.

Digital rights advocacy group, Internet Freedom Foundation, on Wednesday said on its blog post that it has written to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology demanding a thorough investigation.

In the letter dated October 25, the organisation wrote, “In light of these damning revelations, it is incumbent upon the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology to ensure that these revelations are investigated thoroughly to understand the possible ramifications of Facebook and its group of companies on Indian citizens and democracy. Therefore, we urged the committee to initiate an inquiry into these disclosures and call the two whistleblowers, Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang to give testimony to the committee on the revelations made, specifically in the context of India and Indian users of Facebook.”

“As it has previously sent summons and sought testimony from Facebook representatives and Mr Ajit Mohan, who is the Vice President and Managing Director, Facebook India, specifically, further summons may be sent to him to appear before the committee so that the necessary investigation can be carried out,” it added.

According to Alliance for Digital India Foundation (ADIF), in absence of a proper data protection law, if individuals and organizations want to challenge instances of privacy violation, hate speech or fake news, the only recourse available is the filing of a writ petition. But the intermediary status of social media platforms will create a challenge to that.

“The way forward is through progressive enabling legislation. Around the world (India included), such legislations are being deliberated and formulated. For example, the European Union has come up with the ‘Right to be Forgotten’ – this provides individuals a clear basis for approaching the court in instances when the said right is violated. China has also recently been experimenting with interesting regulations such as allowing users the option to turn off algorithm tracking on social media platforms,” Sijo Kuruvilla George, Executive Director, ADIF told BusinessLine.

Need to increase budget

Legal experts believe, the new IT Rules, though at a nascent stage, have adequate mechanism on how social media sites should operate in India and what kind of transparency needs to be put in place.

Avimukt Dar, partner, IndusLaw told BusinessLine ,“The new IT rules are a good starting point signalling policy, but are in need of tweaking to balance with the reality that all the social media intermediaries and not just FB will have to significantly increase their budgets and resources to strengthen technology and AI-based diligence capabilities in India, which may come at the cost of consumer choice.”

Unlike the US where there are one or maybe two (if you count Spanish) main languages, India has so many languages offered by social media. “The chances of hate speech getting traced is higher for posts written in English, which means ultimately it’s the vernacular languages where hateful posts seem to go undetected. Therefore, both budgeting by the intermediaries and better policing by the State itself is critical to monitor and reduce the risks posed,” Dar said.

Rahul Goel, Partner, Anant Law told BusinessLine , “The larger debate is that the social media companies have in the past said that their obligations remain to comply with their own internal rules and standards, and not the laws of a country. But now with them having to follow the new IT Rules, I think the way companies have been dealing with hate speech and similar content should change substantially going forward.”

Brand boycotting

Globally, several major legacy companies such as Coca-Cola, HP, Verizon and Unilever had boycotted Facebook for advertisement last year in response to hate speech being propagated on the platform. Industry insiders say a similar situation, however, seems unlikely in India.

Viraj Sheth, Co-founder and CEO, Monk Entertainment, told BusinessLine : “Frankly, lot of Indians don’t care about their data being taken or their political decisions getting manipulated. And, as long as Facebook is bringing money to the businesses, they don’t care either in India. That’s why I don’t see any brands and advertisers going off the platform. Unilever can afford to boycott Facebook as their marketing channels are still largely offline, but a lot of small businesses, D2C brands and start-ups can’t afford to do so.” Monk Entertainment is a digital marketing company working with start-ups and influencers.

“Issues like boycotting a platform for advertising is more sentiment driven and depends on the affiliation and internal policy of the companies. I think it would be wrong to completely boycott a platform,” Goel added.

Published on October 27, 2021
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