Multi-stakeholder inputs, engagement to play key role in guiding policy on crisis management

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s caution on Saturday that controls on social media must be balanced with the need for free speech is leading to the immediate preparation of stakeholder inputs by the Telecom Ministry for consideration by a Committee of Secretaries (CoS) and perhaps even the National Security Advisor (NSA) as well.

According to a senior official, the government is revisiting its position of blocking Twitter and Facebook, Internet sites and SMSs while engaging these companies and platforms as allies to combat all forms of abuse.

“This unprecedented move in the spirit of collaboration is an attempt at the highest levels of government to review the existing policies, procedures and even legislation involving censorship of the Internet and social media. This decision follows a detailed dialogue with multi-stakeholders, including ISPs, social media companies and media arranged by industry body FICCI on September 4,” the Department of Telecom official told The Hindu.

Confronted with riots in Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Mumbai, the government recently blocked 309 specific items including URLs, Twitter accounts, IMG tags, blog posts and blogs and a handful of websites and Twitter accounts, some belonging to journalists. Allegations of government overreach provoked an intense media debate and it was in the aftermath of this public outcry that the multi-stakeholder meeting was held. A key outcome of this dialogue was the suggestion that the government should use the Internet and social media to counter hate speech.

Interestingly, the Prime Minister, while speaking to security chiefs on Saturday, stressed the “need to devise strategies to counter the propaganda that is carried out by these new [social media and Internet] means.... It is particularly important to obtain assistance of saner elements of society to marginalise those who are overtly intolerant and aggressive.”

Internal review

An internal review is on the cards following the multi-stakeholder dialogue, which was attended by DoT Secretary R. Chandrashekhar, DG CERT-IN Gulshan Rai, representatives from Facebook, Google, civil society, technical community, academia, legal experts, students and the media.

A senior DoT official confirmed that his department would use inputs from these stakeholders in a structured format for a discussion with the CoS and the NSA.

When contacted, the FICCI said it would forward an executive summary of the inputs on crisis management emerging from the multi-stakeholder meeting within the next few days.

The stakeholders suggested the setting up of a crisis council, including law enforcement agencies, Internet and social media companies, mobile operators and ISPs as well as civil society and citizen groups who can coordinate to assist the government at short notice in matters of national security.

Amongst the other key suggestions are building greater trust and transparency among the various stakeholders, especially between those who block and those whose content is blocked, including giving valid reasons for the blocking; enhancing specificity in the broad phrases of IT Rules which currently lead to blocking of content; establishing a process of recourse for those whose content is blocked; conducting an audit of the blocking that has occurred since mid-August to ascertain its impact in countering riots; and generating a much higher level of public awareness.

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