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Open to stricter social media rules, says Govt

In February 2021, the MeitY had notified rules and guidelines to hold social media and over-the-top (OTT) content platforms more accountable for the “misuse and abuse” of the content hosted on their platforms.

Ashwini Vaishnaw, Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, Social media, social media rules, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, I&B ministry, IT act, MeitY, indian expressVaishnaw told Rajya Sabha that the government is open to even more strict social media rules to hold them accountable. (Representational)

Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw said Friday that the government is open to introducing “stricter” guidelines for social media intermediaries if Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are able to build a consensus on it.

His statement in Rajya Sabha, in response to a question by Anand Sharma of the Congress, came four days after senior officials of the ministries of Information and Broadcasting as well as IT met senior executives from Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to understand the process of flagging, demoting and takedown of controversial content.

Those present at the January 31 meeting, called by the I&B ministry, said this was not a one-off meeting, and would be conducted at least once every quarter, if not more, to keep the government apprised of developments in the content takedown process.

Vaishnaw told Rajya Sabha that the government is open to even more strict social media rules to hold them accountable.

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“I personally believe that for the protection of our citizens, we must make the rules stricter. At this point of time, we are working within the Constitutional framework. The role of the state and the role of the Centre, both have to be seen in perspective. We have to come forward as a society and create much more accountability for social media,” he said.

Replying to a question by BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi who wanted to know what action had been taken against sites which had put up defamatory photographs of Muslim women and tried to auction them off, Vaishnaw said that protecting the dignity of women online was a fundamental construct, and there would be no compromise on it.

Explained

The rules and the pushback

A year ago, the government notified rules to hold social media and OTT platforms more accountable for content. Monthly compliance reports on complaints, the action taken and redressal had to be published. The intermediaries have moved courts against a rule directing them to disclose the first originator of a message.

“It is our commitment. Whatever information came to us, we immediately acted upon it,” he said.
He said whenever the government tried to take steps to make social media more accountable, it was the Opposition which alleged that freedom of speech was being taken away.

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On the January 31 meeting, a senior executive of a social media intermediary said: “The MeitY now has a process wherein they flag to us content which they think is controversial. We do our own internal review of the content and based on the outcome of that review, either take down the content, or go back and explain to the ministry our reasons for not taking down the content. Officials from Broadcasting (I&B) wanted to understand the process better.”

According to officials present at the meeting, the I&B ministry asked the social media intermediaries how they tackled fake news, anti-India content, nudity, porn and other controversial content on their platforms. They also wanted to know what the platforms were doing proactively to tackle such content and how much of it was removed every month.

“We explained to them the entire process of how, despite employing the available mechanisms for content review, some of it manages to escape the scrutiny of algorithms and machines. While we are always working on improving the process, some of the content will always have to be flagged for takedown,” another social media intermediary executive present at the meeting said.

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Last month, the I&B and IT ministries had flagged several handles and content to social media platforms for takedown.

The IT ministry had identified 73 Twitter handles, four YouTube channels and one game on Instagram for fake and incitement content, and asked the respective social media intermediaries to suspend them.

The I&B ministry had issued orders to ban 35 more channels on YouTube after receiving intelligence inputs that these channel owners were based in Pakistan and were involved in spreading “anti-India fake news in a coordinated manner over digital media”.

Officials said that executives from all social media companies present at the meeting agreed that the content flagged by the two ministries were indeed unlawful, and therefore were taken down swiftly.

In February 2021, the MeitY had notified rules and guidelines to hold social media and over-the-top (OTT) content platforms more accountable for the “misuse and abuse” of the content hosted on their platforms.

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As a part of the guidelines, the IT ministry had asked all social media companies to appoint an in-house grievance officer whose name and contact details were to be shared with the ministry, a resident grievance officer who should have an office in India and be an Indian passport-holding citizen as well as a chief compliance officer who should be present in India and ensure compliance with the platform’s compliance with the IT Act and the rules.

Monthly compliance reports on the complaints received, the action taken and the redressal for such complaints also had to be published by the intermediaries, as per the rules notified in February 2021.

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While the IT ministry had then also said that social media intermediaries who were primarily in the business of providing peer-to-peer messaging service would have to disclose the first originator of any message when asked, social media intermediaries, including WhatsApp, challenged this rule before several High Courts.

The rules were notified following an intense back-and-forth between the IT ministry and Twitter in January and February, 2021.

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On January 31, amidst then ongoing farmer protests on the border of Delhi, the IT ministry had sent Twitter a list of 257 accounts, asking it to block their access from the platform and from India. The IT ministry had used its emergency powers under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act.

Although Twitter had initially complied with the order, it subsequently unblocked some of the accounts, citing freedom of speech on its platform. The move did not sit well with the IT ministry which had then said that the platform should not have assumed “the role of a court and justify non-compliance”.

First published on: 05-02-2022 at 03:40:20 am
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