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  • Raghav Sand

New Rules for Netizens

The internet landscape in India is about to witness a tectonic change. In suppression of the guidelines issued in 2011, the new rules will derive its powers under Information Technology Act, 2000. Mobile phones and high-speed internet have led to social media platforms and digital media expand their reach in India. As per the government press release, the new regulations are a soft-touch self-regulatory mechanism, but opinion among netizens signals otherwise.

An unusually large font size was used in the first page of the press release. By doing so, the government was trying to make itself loud and clear. The emphasis on propagating its rhetoric came out as borderline authoritarian and may be perceived as bullying tactics by some observers. Among all this, the regulations are mindful about fostering creativity and dissent. The real impact of any new procedure is seen after a while from its implementation.

Bringing Civility to Social Media

In all this chaos, there is universal consensus about the need to curb the misuse of social media targeting individual dignity. YouTube comments and feeds of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are filled with obscene content and abusive language. Absence of robust grievance redressal mechanism left users at the mercy of social media platforms. Arbitrary rules make it confusing for the users of social media and occasionally some users even see their accounts being disabled without any justifiable explanation.

Policing the social media is necessary because it can be used as a platform to spread misinformation and hate. In an already divided and fragile world, we don’t need further divisions and disputes. The new regulations have coined a few interesting terms, among which, ‘first originator of content’ is the most significant. Aggrieved users can now seek redressal from social media companies. Whenever an objectionable content is found on social media platforms, they shall reveal the identity of its originator on the request of appropriate authorities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has lowered the age of individuals who have round the clock access to personal mobile devices. Students were forced to attend classes through smartphones and many people had to purchase inexpensive smartphones to stay relevant. Sheer volume of content on social media makes it impossible for companies to employ individuals as moderators; eventually, artificial intelligence is entrusted to sanitize the platforms. Hate and fake news can be spread in a cryptic language without using certain keywords which have been used for machine learning.

Due Diligence and Identifying Originator

Due diligence must followed by intermediaries. Social media companies can no longer take refuge as platforms; safe harbour provisions will not apply to them. Appointment of grievance officer has been made mandatory for social media companies of all sizes.  A chief compliance officer, resident in India, along with a nodal contact person needs to be appointed by significant social media intermediary.

Social media intermediaries will not be asked to reveal the content of message while revealing the identity of first originator. A physical contact address in India must be published on the website or mobile application of social media intermediary.

In order to promote genuine users on the platforms, a voluntary user verification mechanism has to be put in place. Users who wish to verify their accounts, must be accorded a mark of verification. Presently, popular accounts are assigned a blue tick as a mark of authenticity to restrict imitation. Twitter and Facebook have disabled or blocked certain user’s accounts on their respective platforms due to alleged violation of community standards. The new regulations make it mandatory for social media intermediary to give prior intimation, explaining grounds, before putting curbs on any user’s account.

Over The Top Oversight

Streaming companies also known as over the top (OTT) platforms have grown manifold in the past decade. They have enjoyed creative freedom and have gained loyal fans. There is a raging debate around the content that is now available on OTT platforms. OTT was among the select few sectors which registered growth in the time of pandemic. The government should be aware that prohibition gives rise to an underground culture. OTT’s reasonable financial arithmetic made it possible for creators to tell stories without the high fixed costs associated with feature films. The layers and level of detailing engrossed viewers and kept the cash registers of OTT platforms ringing.

Recently, the government and courts have been approached to restore sanity and dignity on OTT platforms. After consultations with stakeholders and studying the regulations in some countries the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has been assigned the role to administer OTT guidelines. OTT platforms need to put in place a code of ethics. They must classify content based on age and enable parental control on their website and mobile applications.

Digital News

Publishers of news on digital media would be required to observe Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India and the Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act thereby providing a level playing field between the offline (Print, TV) and digital media.

The Final Word

In the present form, the new regulations will give rise to high number of litigations and increase cost of operation for companies engaged in social media, OTT and digital news. The intent of the government is to bring order to the chaos and arbitrary rules. Orderly implementation and relevance of rules will be of paramount importance.

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