Government seeks more control on content moderation in social media platforms

S Ronendra Singh | Updated on: Jun 02, 2022
Intermediaries with over 50 lakh users are required to appoint a Grievance Officer, a Nodal Officer and a Chief Compliance Officer, who have be residents in India too

Intermediaries with over 50 lakh users are required to appoint a Grievance Officer, a Nodal Officer and a Chief Compliance Officer, who have be residents in India too | Photo Credit: TarikVision

MeitY draft notification circulated for comments implies that a government panel would have oversight over content moderation by intermediaries

In what could be the first such move of its kind worldwide, the Indian government is seeking to gain more control over content moderation on social media platforms.

In a draft notification circulated on Thursday, the government has sought comments from the intermediary (social media) companies for amendments in Part-I and Part-II of the IT Rules, 2021, related to setting up of one or more appellate committee/s with the power to reverse the content moderation decisions of these firms.

Ambiguous & onerous

According to industry veterans and lawyers, such changes in the rule are ambiguous and onerous for Intermediaries. Also, the amendments, if carried through, would imply that the final word on what gets to stay on the platform lies with the government rather than with social media companies which may not be acceptable to them, they said.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) put up the draft notification on its website only to pull it down after a few hours. However, sources at the Ministry said it would be uploaded again after a ‘few corrections’. although the changes do not relate to the substantive content of the notification

MeitY has sought comments on the draft notification till June 22.

“If MeitY was undertaking a review, the traceability rule ought to have been taken up first. Unfortunately that does not seem to have been done. The additions to Rule 3 are ambiguous,” NS Nappinai, Supreme Court Advocate and Founder, Cyber Saathi, told BusinessLine.

Dispose of appeals

According to the notification to amend the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, the government panel has to dispose of the appeals within 30 days of receiving them and its decision will be binding on the intermediaries or the large social media companies concerned.

“Whilst appointment of a grievance appellate forum may be welcome from user perspective it may face objection as this addition is being done through delegated legislation instead of through Parliament enacted law,” Nappinai said.

The proposed move also assumes significance against the backdrop of instances of accounts, including that of celebrities, being blocked by social media platforms such as Twitter for alleged violation of respective community guidelines.

“The proposed amendments to the IT Rules subject most content moderation decisions taken by online platforms to governmental oversight. If promulgated, the government will be able to reinstate content that online platforms have removed in accordance with their content policies. The final word on what gets to stay on the platform now lies with the Centre rather than with social media companies,” Gurshabad Grover, a technologist and legal researcher based in Bengaluru, told BusinessLine.

Additionally, based on complaints from the public, the government will be able to direct social media platforms to remove content based on vague descriptors like “obscene”, “pornographic”, “libellous”, “racially or ethnically objectionable,” he said.

Indirect control

“It should be noted here that some of these terms are not defined as criminal acts of expression in the Indian Penal Code or in any other law. So, the government will indirectly gain the power to censor material that otherwise they would not be able to in a manner consistent with the law and the Constitution,” Grover added.

The rules for social media companies came into effect from May 26, 2021, which mandated large social media platforms like Meta (earlier Facebook) and Twitter to enable identification of the ‘first originator’ of the information that undermines the sovereignty of India, the security of the State, or public order.

Under the rules, intermediaries with over 50 lakh users, are required to appoint a Grievance Officer, a Nodal Officer and a Chief Compliance Officer, who have be residents in India too.

Published on June 02, 2022
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