New rules to regulate social media and OTT draw the lines between Big Tech and government.

On Thursday, the government unveiled the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 that seek to define the contours for oversight of social media as well as digital media and OTT platforms in the country. This was inevitable.

The rules, which come after Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Law & Justice and Information Technology, accused social media platform Twitter of double standards in its response to events at the Red Fort and the US Capitol Hill, are a response to the growing realisation of the immense power wielded by Big Tech, and concerns that the governance of public spheres cannot be left in the hands of a few. It is also a repudiation of the shield extended to social media platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the US that provides legal immunity to internet companies for content shared on their websites. This marks the first salvo in the battle between Big Tech and the Indian state. The battle lines have been drawn.

The purpose of the rules is three-fold. First, to create a grievance redressal mechanism for timely resolution of complaints. Platforms will need to appoint grievance officers who will acknowledge the complaints within 24 hours, and resolve them within 15 days of receipt. Second, to bring about transparency and accountability with regards to social media and digital platforms. By asking platforms to appoint chief compliance officers, who shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act, and publish monthly compliance reports, the rules seek to address complaints regarding non-responsiveness and bias on the part of these platforms. Third, to ensure a degree of uniformity between the rules that govern print and TV media and online media platforms.

While the government has emphasised self-regulation as the way forward, there is much to be concerned about. The three-tier framework created for regulation envisages an oversight mechanism which includes an inter-departmental committee for hearing grievances — effectively ensuring the government has both the right to complain and the authority to enforce. Further, the thresholds for intervention aren’t clearly defined. In a country where laws are routinely abused, this vagueness in definitions can be easily misused. It needs to be guarded against.

The rules also call for social media platforms to identify the first originator of the information. This is likely to require breaking the end-to-end encryption, affecting the right to privacy. Considering that the power of anonymity extended by these platforms is a useful tool, this could have grave repercussions.

While it is true that social media platforms provide space for dissenting opinions, have unleashed suppressed voices and empowered communities, there is no denying that these platforms can be, and are, misused. Big Tech needs to be made accountable, and these rules open up the space for debates on the regulatory architecture. But given the blunt instruments of the state, a careful balance will need to be struck for the devil, usually, lies in the details.

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