The Election Commission (EC) has called a meeting with the India heads of Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, ShareChat and Tiktok on Tuesday to discuss unresolved questions related to takedown of violative social media content during the Lok Sabha elections, including the pre-certification process for political advertisements and the time limit for them to act on complaints.
The meeting comes against the backdrop of confusion that arose with the EC’s first takedown notice to Facebook regarding a Model Code of Conduct (MCC) violation last week.
As first reported by The Indian Express, on March 13, the EC had asked Facebook’s Director, Public Policy for India and South Asia, Shivnath Thukral to have removed two political posters with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s photograph, shared by BJP leader and Delhi MLA Om Prakash Sharma. A showcause notice for the MCC violation was also issued to the legislator.
It is learnt that Facebook informally notified the EC that it must cite a specific legal provision that Sharma’s posts violated. Sharma, meanwhile, deleted the two posts on his own.
Given the confusion over the notification format, the poll watchdog has now included this as one of the main agenda points for Tuesday’s meeting. “Evolving a notification mechanism by the social media platforms so that ECI may notify the relevant platform of political violations of Section 126 of the RP Act, 1951,” states the agenda note, accessed by The Sunday Express.
Subho Ray, President of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), told The Sunday Express, “Removal of content is very, very sensitive for intermediaries, therefore we want a legal order that cites a legal provision. That will help us do two things. One, it will help us establish the legality of the notice. And number two, in case we challenge it, we will have to explain to the court that this notice does not pass muster given the cited act or law.”
The IAMAI is representing Facebook, Twitter, Google, WhatsApp and ShareChat in coordinating with the EC for evolving a ‘Code of Ethics’ for their platforms.
Tuesday’s meeting with the above platforms as well as TikTok will also discuss pre-certification of political advertisements hosted on social media sites, by the EC’s Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC).
In January, an EC committee chaired by Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha had studied the impact of social media on the ‘silence period’ before the elections and proposed changes to Section 126 of the Representation of the People (RP) Act, which prohibits election campaigning two days before voting.
This committee, among other things, had recommended, “No intermediary shall host any political advertisements without the prior approval of MCMC Committee.” The EC had recently shared the panel’s recommendations with the IAMAI for comments.
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In its response submitted two weeks ago, obtained by The Sunday Express, the IAMAI has opposed the above suggestion. “The onus of pre-certification is on advertisers and not on intermediaries,” the IAMAI said, drawing upon a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that requires political parties and candidates to apply to the EC before issuing television advertisements.
The IAMAI’s Ray said intermediaries will not agree to “pre-monitoring” because it would require them to forego their legal safe harbour provisions, which exempt them from liability for content on their platform before it is brought to their attention.
Another Sinha committee suggestion said that in the 48-hour silence period before elections, companies must remove content within three hours of receiving notice. The IAMAI has not explicitly responded to this.
When asked about this guideline, Ray said the IAMAI had agreed to either abiding by the request “as soon as possible” or explaining in a “time-bound manner” why the content could not be taken down.
The EC has not officially responded to the IAMAI’s comments. Asked about this, EC spokesperson S B Sharan said on Friday that it is “a work in progress”.
Another unresolved issue likely to be discussed at the Tuesday meeting between the social media platforms and the EC is whether or not those who pay platforms to “boost” or “promote” a post created by somebody else would also qualify as “political advertisers”.
The meeting will also discuss grievance redressal channels, evolving of a mechanism by social media platforms “to prevent abuse on their platforms”, and awareness programmes by the platforms, particularly during the silence period.