Minister of State for Electronics Rajeev Chandrasekhar on Friday stressed that with the new amendments to the Information Technology rules, the government’s focus is to make the Internet a safe, trusted and accountable space for users, and to ensure that platforms such as Twitter and Facebook respect the rights accorded to the citizens of India under the Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution.
The Minister also dismissed criticism that the setting up of Centre-appointed Grievance Appellate Committees (GACs) would give the government power to moderate content on social media, saying that content moderation is not an issue that is going to come to GACs at all. The government, he said, had been forced to introduce GACs due to the “casual” and “tokenism” approach of digital platforms towards user complaints in the past one year. The government had received lakhs of messages from citizens regarding the action/inaction on the part of the intermediaries on grievances regarding objectionable content or suspension of user accounts, he added.
“The GAC is really a disincentive to the intermediaries to not to continue their status quo casual way of approaching grievances redressal,” he said.
He highlighted that there are broadly three main additions in the amended rules, which now impose a legal obligation on intermediaries to take reasonable efforts to prevent users from uploading unlawful content, requires intermediaries to respect the rights guaranteed to users under the Constitution, including a reasonable expectation of due diligence, privacy and transparency, and the establishment of GACs.
“...some intermediaries believed mistakenly that their guidelines and their rules supersede the Constitutional Rights of 14, 19 and 21. The rules make it very clear that regardless of where your jurisdiction is, if you are providing a service to an Indian citizen, then Articles 14, 19 and 21 cannot be diluted or ignored,” he said.
Excerpts from the interview:
‘IT rules obligate social media firms on content’
Q / One big criticism is that the Grievance Appellate Committee (GAC) will give the government greater powers in content moderation...
A / There are two issues that we are looking at – safety and trust, and accountability. Earlier, under due diligence, intermediaries had to only broadcast to users about not uploading certain categories of harmful/unlawful content. There was no enforcement. We have changed that to say not only shall intermediaries inform and publish, but also cause that these things don’t happen and in that we have included misinformation (in the content categories).
A / So there is now a definite obligation on the part of the intermediary on content moderation. They have to do it. In case they miss something, then when somebody informs them, that needs to be taken down within 72 hours. There is no other moderation of content. The GAC does not come into the picture at all.
A / The person who points out that there is misinformation is not the government, it could be any one… so the content moderation is not an issue that is going to come to GAC at all. All the non-content related issues come to the GAC… account block/hacked etc.
A / Currently, users just get a ‘thank you for sending your grievance, we will revert to you’ message from these platforms. The purpose of the GAC is to address unresolved grievances.
A / GAC is really a disincentive to intermediaries to not to continue their status quo casual way of approaching grievances redressal… I have enough work… everybody in the Ministry is working hard... to take on the role of being an ombudsman for the Internet. That is not our primary goal. But we are forced to do that because of the lack of progress in the last one year.
A / It is not an area the government wants to get into. We are doing it very, very reluctantly because we have an obligation and duty to the digital Nagriks that someone listens to their grievances; if platforms do not, then at least the government should.
Q / So intermediaries need to verify if the content is factual?
A / Intermediaries will need to verify it and 72 hours is enough time to verify.
A / If there isn’t ample information available they should take it down. We have done a detailed study and found that the velocity and acceleration of flow of misinformation is 8-10 times faster than any regular information and it reaches a wider audience.
A / Frankly, I am of the opinion that 72 hours is too long. It was proposed to be 24 hours but during consultation it was widely felt that this is early days, so let’s keep it at 72 and then progressively as the platforms and intermediates gain the capacity and capability, this will be brought down. I will urge all the intermediaries that while the letter of the rule say 72 hours, the spirit should be as fast as possible.
Q / You will also be meeting the intermediaries. What is the agenda?
A / I don’t want things to be adversarial. This is not about just regulating intermediaries. It’s about a shared view on how do we approach a safe and trusted Internet. This (the guidelines) is our view. This view has taken into account all kinds of consultation, including the industry. Yes, this is not as good as no regulation, but the era of no regulation is over. This is absolutely fair. This is absolutely a realistic expectation of intermediaries and our approach to intermediaries is that we are partners.
A / The Government of India, the intermediaries and the digital Nagriks (citizens) are three stakeholders in building this trillion-dollar value digital economy and the underlying Internet which is a safe and trusted Internet.
Q / The rules now also mention publishing of intermediary rules in regional languages.
A / Look we have to have the Internet available, especially this type of thing available in all languages. All 120 crore Indians, they’re all not English and Hindi. So we want this in all languages. But, we are not saying that it has to happen tomorrow. We are signalling through this rule that this is a multilingual Internet and inclusion into the Internet is a very, very important objective.
Q / You talked about seeing the new rules as a partnership with the industry. But is this being reciprocated by the industry?
A / I’m working on that. We did extensive public consultation with the industry. We decided on a 72-hour time frame for content removal instead for 24 hours… They said we don’t want GAC, we want a Self Regulatory Organization (SRO). They said this in March and I told them if you come with an SRO, I will include the SRO in these amended rules. We waited at least two months. I could have done these rules two months ago. But the industry did not come up with the SRO.
A / Even today, if the industry tomorrow comes up with a viable SRO which has participation from consumers, participation from industry, participation from the government and is distinctly separate from the first level of grievance redressal, we are happy to look at it.
A / This government’s intention is to work with the intermediary. The rules are not about making it difficult for anybody or targeting any company. We don’t want to get into that sort of tired narrative that we are fixing people. We are not fixing anybody. We have a clearly defined view on how to make the Internet safe and trusted and are coaxing people to come along with us. And it is win-win.
A / A safe and trusted Internet means they also get to grow and get more investments. This is really what should be a collective mission for all the stakeholders of the Internet which is to make the Internet safe, trusted while keeping its attributes of openness alive, and establishing the principle of accountability between the intermediaries and the consumers.
Q / Will the government also look at penalties?
A / Our approach towards jurisprudence and laws in evolving. We would like this to be a partnership between the government and the intermediaries. If it needs a further modification of the rules, we will not hesitate to do it. We did not mandate the GAC in May 2021.
A / In good faith, we thought that intermediaries by appointing a grievance redressal officer would automatically understand that the officer is supposed to resolve grievances and not have some tokenism there… we are in some sense forced to have a GAC.
A / We have lakhs of messages from citizens and digital nagriks whose grievances were not responded to apart from either by just saying we have received your grievance, thank you for sending your grievance or no response at all. And that is not acceptable for us.
A / Only as a last resort, will we resort to incorporating penalties.