The Union government has issued draft amendments to the IT Rules, which will allow it to have the last word on content that is uploaded on social media.

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Atom Controversy Wednesday, June 08, 2022 - 14:59

The Union government has published a new set of draft amendments to the contentious IT Rules, 2021, aiming to override decisions made by social media companies and the content online. As part of the IT rules, companies were required to hire grievance officers so that users can complain or question a piece of content. In turn, the grievance officer either had to act on it or explain why they were not doing so. Now, if this user is dissatisfied, they can appeal to the government-appointed appellate committee to appeal the decision. This, in turn, will be binding on the company in question and allows the Union government to have the last word on content that is uploaded on social media companies. The government aims to set up a grievance appellate committee panel for users who are dissatisfied with grievance committees to appeal the same. These may not only be content moderation decisions but also decisions that involve deplatforming users.

These amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 were met with objections, and a week after the Ministry of Electronics and IT uploaded the draft and then quietly took them down. According to Entrackr, it was taken down at the time due to some “editorial mistakes”.The government then issued a fresh notification, similar to the draft that was originally published. Now, the government has said that it will hold a public consultation in mid-June on the proposal.

The press note by the Ministry of Electronics and IT says that the government has proposed these changes to address gaps in the IT rules and aims to address some “infirmities and gaps that exist in the current rule vis-a-vis Big Tech platform”.

The proposed amendments, the Union government said, are to ensure that the “Constitutional rights of Indian citizens are not contravened by any Big-tech Platform by ensuring new accountability standards for SSMIs [significant social media intermediaries]”. Significant social media intermediaries are those with over 50 lakh users such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter.

The rules will not impact early-stage or growth-stage Indian companies or startups, the government said.

Here are the highlights of the draft notification:

> Changes in grievance redressal mechanism

Soon, any complaint about the removal of content will have to be addressed within 72 hours. The government said that this time because of the very nature of cyberspace providing instant communication, outreach and virality.” Any other grievance will continue to be addressed within 15 days.

“This will help to ensure that problematic content is removed expeditiously, and does not become viral over a sustained period of time,” the government said. To prevent the misuse of this mechanism, intermediaries will be allowed to implement safeguards.

> Removal of content:

The draft says social media platforms must inform users and not allow them to post things that are in violation of the rules, including things such as being misleading in nature, ethnically objectionable, insulting to another nation, etc. These changes are under Rule 3(1)(b) of the IT rules, which refer to due diligence to be followed by intermediaries regarding the rules and regulations.

“This is worrying because the grounds mentioned in Rule 3(1)(b) are themselves vague, impossible to implement consistently and prone to misuse, and social media platforms should not be made arbiters of whether a piece of content is permissible under this rule,” the Internet Freedom Foundation earlier said.

> Grievance appellate committees:

The clause states that the Union government will constitute one or more grievance appellate committees. While it states that the committee will consist of a chairperson and other members appointed by the Union government, it does not elaborate on who these people will be, how many people can be on the committee, or how they will be chosen. 

This, it said, is for any person aggrieved by an order made by a grievance officer of intermediaries and wishes to appeal the same. The aggrieved person can appeal against the decision of the grievance officer concerned before the committee within 30 days of receipt of the order. This committee will have to deal with the appeal expeditiously and dispose of the appeal within 30 calendar days from the date it receives the appeal.

Orders passed by this committee will be binding, according to the draft notification.

“The Grievance Appellate Committee is set up to provide an alternative for a user to file an appeal against the decision of the Grievance Officer rather than directly going to the court of law. Hence, the user can appeal to the said committee in case of his dissatisfaction with the order of the Grievance Officer and seek an alternative redressal mechanism. However, the user has the right to seek judicial remedy at any time,” it states.

When the draft notification was previously uploaded, IFF said a committee of this sort will make the government the arbiter of permissible speech on the internet which incentivises social media platforms to suppress any speech that may not be palatable to the government.

“MeitY will essentially be able to appoint itself to sit on top of social media platforms, & decide what millions of Indians can or cannot say on their Facebook or Twitter profiles. This is being done with no transparency or accountability measures built into the Rules,” the Internet Freedom Foundation said, calling for the Rules to be withdrawn in their entirety.

The rules for social media companies came into effect on May 26, 2021. It mandated large social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to enable the identification of the 'first originator' of the information that undermines the sovereignty of India, the security of the state, or public order.

It has also extended the time for public comments on the draft notification to amend the IT Rules, 2021, by 30 days from June 6 onward. The draft notice dated June 1 had mentioned June 22 as the last date for public comments.

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