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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Explained: The arguments for and against the new social media rules

We live in a new era of global diplomacy where gigantic tech companies that have thrown their hats into the geopolitical ring, writes Bhaskar Chakravorti.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 27, 2021 8:55:41 pm
Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad addresses a press conference on the new rules, in New Delhi, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (AP Photo: Manish Swarup)

On Thursday, the Indian government announced a sweeping array of rules reining-in social media. Specifically, social media platforms are required to become “more responsible and more accountable” for the content they carry. There is now a list of stuff deemed offensive.

In other words, the government is giving itself plenty of room to cut Big Tech down to size, states Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

IT Act, New social media rules, Social media guidelines explained, Indian Express Express Illustration: C R Sasikumar

But regardless of whether India’s actions are motivated by its recent frustrations with Twitter or part of a wider global trend, the question is: Who gets to decide what is legitimate free speech — Big Government or Big Tech? Chakravorti tries to explain the arguments on both sides of the debate.

One argument for government intervention rests on the presumption that it is never in the commercial interest of Big Tech to remove offensive speech. To counter this argument, Big Tech proponents would contend that the companies are getting smarter about the risks of allowing such content on their systems and will inevitably find it in their self-interest to pre-emptively kill it.

The second argument in favour of the government would be as follows: In democratic societies, governments are elected to represent the will of the people. So if there is a hard choice to be made about curtailing speech or permitting it, it seems only natural to turn to the public guardian. The counter to this theory would be that, in practice, even democratically elected governments are far from perfect.

A third perspective is to acknowledge it doesn’t matter who is the “true” upholder of the public interest; for all practical purposes, the outcome of the struggle between Big Government and Big Tech will be determined by relative bargaining power. While governments technically have the ability to take entire platforms offline within the borders of their countries, these platforms are now so enormous that their users would revolt.

“All said and done, I would say we now live in a new era of global diplomacy. It isn’t just states butting heads with other states; there are gigantic tech companies that have thrown their hats into the geopolitical ring… India can impose a ban on TikTok and the politician’s children are deprived of endless hours of entertaining video. But if it turns the lights out on Twitter, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would instantaneously deprive himself of 66 million followers. Twitter knows that and the negotiators within the government know that as well,” he concludes.

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