The measure — which comes into force immediately — will further tighten the controls on the social media giants (the majority of them American) who have increasingly been under regulatory heat in India over their content moderation practices, and due to their reluctance to follow government diktats on matters such as removal of posts or accounts.
The new Rules had been in the works for the past nearly five months after they were proposed through draft amendments to the contentious Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.
As per the new guidelines, the central government now gets powers to establish one or more Grievance Appellate Committees (GAC) within a period of three months and these shall consist of a chairperson and two whole-time members. The appointments will also be done by the government: one shall be a member ex officio and two shall be independent members.
“The focus of the amendment of intermediary guidelines is on the protection of online users,” IT minister Ashwini Vaishnav said on Twitter.
Henceforth, any person whose social media account has faced action from a company but has failed to get any satisfactory redressal from its grievance officer can file an appeal with the GAC within 30 days. The GAC will deal with the appeals “expeditiously and attempt to resolve it within 30 calendar days”, the new Rules say.
“Every order passed by the Grievance Appellate Committee shall be complied with by the intermediary (social media platforms) concerned and a report to that effect shall be uploaded on its website,” the rules stipulate.
The rules also say that while dealing with the appeal, the GAC may seek assistance from any person having requisite qualification, experience and expertise in the subject matter. “The GAC shall adopt an online dispute resolution mechanism wherein the entire appeal process, from filing of appeal to the decision thereof, shall be conducted through digital mode.”
Experts of internet laws have been critical of the measures which they say arms the state with wide-ranging powers. Legal researcher Gurshabad Grover said that the move, if implemented, will give the government the “final word” when it comes to content removal or reinstatement of suspended accounts. “Indirectly the government will be able to censor content that they otherwise will not be able to do directly in a manner consistent with the laws.”
Also, the rules advocate against any arbitrary decisions by the companies against user accounts. “The intermediary shall take all reasonable measures to ensure accessibility of its services to users along with reasonable expectation of due diligence, privacy and transparency,” they say, adding that the companies shall “respect all the rights accorded to the citizens under the Constitution, including in the Articles 14, 19 and 21.”
Also, the rules say that social media companies should develop “appropriate safeguards” to avoid any misuse of the platforms by their users.
Also, they say that the companies shall make reasonable efforts to see that their users do not “host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, store, update or share any information” that is illegal, inflammatory, obscene or threatens the unity, integrity and security of the country, among various other reasons.
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