Regulating the Anti-Social media 


30th March, 2021

Written by Kapish Agrawal

Artwork by Niyoshi Parekh

I do not find it alarmist to believe that my country is going through some testing times. I witness the most obscure of my imaginations come true. Yet, I also see hope around me. I surround myself with discussions drowning in the lack of reason. Yet, I also see ocean sized willingness to make a difference. I face problems in permanently siding with one end of a spectrum. Yet, I also see what I want and don’t want in my society.  Many may have experienced this before and many shall after me.  I like to believe that I am witnessing a democracy at play – at a time we cannot take it for granted. And still, it is upon us to be its best possible manifestations. 

No matter what, there are two things that I still believe in. One, nothing is ever entirely black or white. Two, there is no bigger adversary than prejudice. As citizens, we are all tested to these ideas each day. Every hour brings something that is complex, to say the least. But we cannot – and should not try to – afford uninformed choices. Not to mention, partly informed ones. Only a single ‘angle’ is unfair to the importance of what we discuss here and outside.

The recent Information and Technology Rules of 2021 is one such dividing subject. After all, what are they? Why do some welcome them, while others detest? I value my freedom to speak. Therefore, I speak. However, it also bothers me to see people lose lives to an unknown and intangible world. In my opinion, these laws are an important but also an incomplete start to what the country’s internet requires. How? Let us see. 

Union Ministers Prakash Javdekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad announced the updated IT rules of 2021. The full name tells us more about it – The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Codes) Rules, 2021. With the rising prominence of social media and the internet, these rules seek to regulate a rather boundary-less domain. It concerns three actors that were not shown on the state’s radars till now – Social media, OTT platforms, and Digital media. Although inseparable from most of our lives, these were unregulated and successfully so. 

What will each one look like? And what does that mean for us? 

Social Media

Companies like Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are considered intermediaries under the IT Act of 2000. These are firms involved in providing its users with a platform to represent themselves and interact with their friends. They are often also called third party intermediaries. 

The IT Act of 2000 provided such companies with a special ‘Safe Harbor’ from liabilities of content that was published by their users. Contrary to what many people believe today —and often argue for — the protection has been contingent on adherence to government guidelines since the Act was passed. In turn, it was a limitation of the Rules passed until 2011 that excluded such companies. Now that these new rules are here, these companies have some significant changes to make. 

Social media in our country is notorious for content that has had grave consequences. Unfortunately, the issue is greater in case of women. Sexual threats, morphed images, and indecent behavior are lived reality for many. The government claims this to be the sole cause of what it proposes. Not to mention, the laws also cover matters of national security, sovereignty, and relations with foreign states. Here is where it gets tricky and unarguably dangerous. 

The Rules expect these intermediaries and ‘significant’ intermediaries (if they have more than 5 million) to decrypt the end-to-end encryption of various chats. Knowing the initiator of such incidences is their sole priority. Although extremely essential for any police actions, lack of a data protection regime makes this dangerous. The company, even if not the state, gains access to a large pool of extremely private data. One cannot doubt the importance of targeting illegal behavior, but at what cost? These laws do not need to go. New ones need to come in. 

Social media companies are also expected to appoint three positions that are paramount to accountability. The Compliance officer, the Nodal office, and the Grievance Redressing officer will handle the following: a) To maintain compliance to all government acts or laws; b) To maintain contact with all enforcement agencies; c) To address all complaints. Ever wonder what happens when you report an Instagram post? If not, these officers will now be legally bound to accept your complaint within 24 hours and address them within 15 days. Appointed are supposed to be residents of India. Their contact details and the physical company address is also a must display. 

Digital Media

This is the new and one of the vague criteria that was created for the purpose of these Rules - Websites publishing news and current affairs, or publishers of online curated content, etc. One cannot deny that the impact of this medium is beyond control. With the Internet becoming the primary source of information in our lives, non-regulation will be extremely hard to handle. Therefore, the ‘Rules seek to create a level playing field that will allow the rise of new media.’ After this, the media is expected to follow the norms of Journalist conduct of Press Council of India, and Programme code under Cable TV Network Regulation Act. 

In addition to the same, the government has also planned a three level self-regulation. a) Regulation at the company level by Grievance redressing officers, b) Formation of a self-regulatory body composed of eminent publishers, c) An inter-departmental committee for oversight. These organizations will have a long designated procedure to ensure deliberation before any decision has been made. 

OTT platforms

This media has kept a large part of the population occupied along the pandemic. Nevertheless, it is a new platform that is developing extremely fast. This is also an extremely large unregulated space in the heart of a large industry. The Rules have mandated the platforms to self-regulate and assign age content classifications – 13+, 16+, A, etc. Along with this, it will also follow the creation of a Grievance Redressing officer for complaints and resolutions. Contrary to popular perception, there is no pre-release ‘censure’. Ministers have gone as far as calling them ‘soft touch’ actions. 

A large part of this reform’s success is dependent on the way our government uses it. Many countries including the UK, Australia and the United States have also begun emulating these actions. Experts from across the field have raised some questions about the specifics of these actions. Many of them are calling for the inclusion of ‘teeth’ in the tiger – solutions and ideas that need to be implemented to hold accountable. Only a participative and active democracy is of relevance to such situations. Holding the government collectively and consistently accountable between the elections is necessary. Although the specifics may be debatable, a step in this direction was long due. The rest, only time can tell.