The Ministry of Electronics and IT has published a fresh draft of amendments to the Information Technology Rules, 2021 (IT Rules), which proposes the creation of government-appointed appeal committees that will be empowered to review and possibly reverse content moderation decisions taken by social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The Ministry also claimed that the rules will not “impact early stage or growth stage Indian companies or startups”.
Last week, the Ministry had issued a draft with the same proposal, but withdrew it within hours. At the time, a source at the ministry had said that the draft would be reissued with some changes following a formal announcement. To that effect, the fresh proposals have been published as a draft to be published in the official gazette, whereas the old proposals were published in the form of a notice. The proposals themselves, however, in the new and old draft remain the same.
As such, the fresh draft retains the clause on setting up government appointed appellate committees which would be able to veto content decisions taken by social media intermediaries. “The Central Government shall constitute one or more Grievance Appellate Committees, which shall consist of a Chairperson and such other Members, as the Central Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, appoint,” MeitY said in the fresh draft.
What it essentially means is that in case a user is not satisfied with the content moderation decision taken by a company’s grievance officer, they can appeal that decision before the proposed government-appointed appeals committee. “Every order passed by the Grievance Appellate Committee shall be complied with by the concerned intermediary,” the ministry said in the draft. Currently, the only recourse a user has against companies’ content decisions is to approach the courts.
The proposal had triggered concerns about the government overriding social media platforms’ content decisions. “The Grievance Appellate Committee is set up to provide an alternative to a user to file an appeal against the decision of the Grievance Officer rather than directly going to the court of law,” the draft said. “However, the user has the right to seek judicial remedy at any time”.
Reasoning the need for amendments to the IT Rules 2021, MeitY in a press release said that the amendments will ensure that “Constitutional rights of Indian citizens are not contravened by any big tech platform by ensuring new accountability standards”. The new draft, it said, will ensure “actual enforcement of requirements in IT rules 2021 in letter and spirit”.
Under the IT Rules, released in February last year, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are mandated to appoint India-based resident grievance officers as part of their due diligence as ‘intermediaries’ who enjoy legal immunity from third-party content on their platform. These officers are responsible for overseeing the grievance redressal mechanism of complaints from the people who use their services. This basically means that if a user has an issue with an account or a piece of content on a social media platform, they can complain about it to the company’s grievance officer who will have to act and dispose of that complaint within 15 days.
However, the fresh draft also proposes to place additional responsibilities on grievance officers. It suggests that if a user complains about content which is “patently false”, infringes copyright, and threatens the integrity of India, among other things, a grievance officer will have to expeditiously address it within 72 hours.
The IT Rules, since implementation in May last year, have run into several legal troubles. Last year, WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against a particular provision in the rules which requires encrypted messaging platforms to trace the identity of the originator of a message. In its lawsuit, the company said that implementing the provision would dilute its encryption security and present a privacy-risk to users’ personal conversations.