Quick Take

Tread with caution while framing rules for social media

| Updated on September 25, 2019

Limitations on malicious content must not extend to the policing and persecution of political opponents

On the face of it, the observations on Tuesday of a Supreme Court bench on the need for guidelines to curb the “misuse” of social media may seem unexceptionable. In the way that these platforms have in recent times been appropriated, even hijacked, for the dissemination of fake news, which have had the effect of whipping up violence in parts of India, there is a clear and present danger to civil society.

In several countries around the world – and even in jurisdictions where free speech rights are upheld in absolute terms – there are reasonable restrictions placed on dissemination of hate speech and on child pornography. Technology platforms, however, haven’t always done a sterling job of regulating themselves to filter out wilfuly malicious content. Regulations that are aimed at addressing those concerns are fair game in order to ensure that the overall ecosystem stays sanitised.

But in equal measure, and particularly in the Indian context, it is worth noting that the Supreme Court bench also cautioned against excessively intrusive regulation and spoke up in defence of the right to privacy of individuals. As Justice Deepak Gupta observed, the need for “strict guidelines” must go alongside the need to protect privacy. “My personal information cannot be entirely disclosed just because some police commissioner asked for it,” he added.


Nuance of that order has sometimes been missing in successive governments’ efforts to regulate social media platforms , which have been characterised rather more by an overreach that targets political opponents – and even harmless meme-makers, including schoolchildren. There has been a shocking tendency to criminalise even frivolously satirical expressions of free speech from what is in many cases the first generation of digital embracers experimenting with their new-found freedom.

While drawing up new regulations to prevent the “abuse” of social media, the government must walk the thin line between justifiable limitations on malicious content and knee-jerk policing of political incorrectness.

Published on September 25, 2019

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