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Great Intention or Misdirection?

“Privacy is dead, and social media holds the smoking gun” - Pete Cashmore.

There is a power struggle between The Government and Social Media platforms (Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter), and the people of India are right at the center of it. The Government is using India’s large user base as leverage to force Social Media to accept its rules and the latter is victimizing itself in front of the public. India recently released new guidelines for Information Technology (IT) companies operating in India, landing a vital blow in this battle of heavyweights.

Who should the people trust? Should they trust the government or social media giants? Can the people trust anyone? India needs some kind of check on the growing power of Social Media, but is this check capable of threatening the bedrock of democracy on which this country was born?

The Backstory

In 2018, the Supreme Court announced that the Government of India may frame necessary guidelines to eradicate child pornography, rape and gang-rape videos/sites in on the various content providing applications due to the rise in cases related to these violences.

In 2020, An Ad-hoc committee of the Rajya Sabha submitted its report after studying the alarming issue of pornography on social media and its effect on children and society as a whole and recommended a mechanism for identification of the first originator of such posts. The government brought video streaming over-the-top (OTT) platforms under the wings of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Examples of such platforms are Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

Important Highlights

In 2021, the Government released its updated Information Technology Rules. Briefly explained below is the new setup:

Identification of the “first originator of the information” would be required in case of an offense related to the sovereignty and integrity of India. A Chief Compliance Officer, (Indian) also needs to be appointed and that person shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act and Rules. He/she would also have to submit a monthly compliance report with details of the relevant complaints received and thereafter the actions taken for the same. The OTT platforms would be called ‘publishers of online curated content’ and it would be compulsory for them to classify their content into five categories based on age and use parental locks for age above 13 or higher. A three-level grievance redressal mechanism has been mandated. Under this mechanism, every company would have to appoint a Grievance Redressal Officer (GRO). They would be self regulating bodies registered with the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB). Their Charter would be drawn up by the MIB and their main function would be to look after the Code of Ethics formulated by the Government.

Revolution or Revolutionary?

The court of public opinion is divided into two- one half that hails these rules as protection against disinformation campaigns and perception management while increasing the responsibility of tech companies. For example, after the Government passed the Citizen Amendment Act in 2019, there was a photograph being shared on Facebook which showed a huge Muslim gathering. The photograph was circulated as a protest against the Act in Mumbai, but the picture was actually from a community celebration in Bangladesh.

Posts like these are taken out of context and circulated. The critics have drawn attention to the government's alleged covert motives for this setup. This setup may threaten our free speech and ability to express without restraints. Free speech advocates warn that such rules are prone to politicization and could be used to target government critics. Twitter has been asked multiple times to block News agency accounts that criticise the Government via Twitter, like The Caravan an investigative magazine and frequent critics of the ruling party.

To believe or not to believe, that is the question.

Firstly, are the government’s claims against Big tech justified? Social Media has taken the phrase free speech to another level, to a point where it makes people doubt whether free speech is a boon or a bane. A swift google search of the words ‘Facebook ban’ will confirm that Facebook has been put under the scanner multiple times for its data privacy rules. Every day a new country contemplates a Facebook ban or fine. But these investigative procedures leading to probable bans also include data giants like Whatsapp and Instagram which are also owned by the Zuckerberg Empire. Speaking of Whatsapp, did you hear about the new COVID cure? Put 8 cloves of garlic and 7 cups of water in a big bowl, boil it and drink it and you will be cured. It is 100% approved by Whatsapp Doctors. Apparently, COVID 19 is a Vampire.

US Homeland Security has confirmed that ISIS recruits people via Instagram and Facebook and it uses many social media platforms to spread its message.

Social media enabled pro-Trump supporters to discuss, gather and ultimately storm the Capitol building. Fake news can threaten peace and democracy in a country. Misinformation and disinformation spread in the media is becoming a serious social challenge. It is leading to a poisonous atmosphere on the web and inciting riots and lynchings on the road. In the age of the internet (WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter), it is a serious problem as rumors, morphed images, click-baits, motivating stories, unverified information, planted stories for various interests, etc. spread easily among the 35 crore internet users in India. Instagram has capitalised on the abundance of user’s private data and shares it with sister firms like Facebook whilst selling to the highest bidders to engage in targeted consumer choice manipulation a.k.a. targeted advertisements.

Why are the IT rules perceived to be some underhanded move by the ruling party? First and foremost, the rules have been forced upon the IT companies without taking it to the parliament. The fact that the government has bypassed the legislative route altogether should be a warning sign. According to the new rules, online platforms have to be more responsive to complaints about posts on their site, and anyone who has a grievance against a post on any platform can take that platform to court. As a publisher, platforms will have to proactively censor content before they appear online. Given that in India offense is something Indians are very fond of taking, this could result in a massive increase in the number of court appearances for these platforms. The platform would have to share with the government the original creator of a post if need be. That is a huge breach of privacy. Talk about big brother watching. Even before these new rules came out, the government was already at war with social media companies. On May 24th, Delhi Police raided Twitter’s office after Twitter labeled tweets from BJP as manipulated media. Twitter has since claimed that this raid was an intimidation tactic.

What Lies Ahead?

The question is, will the government use these rules to censure critics and prevent free speech? It does seem like there is an underlying agenda within these rules. Even if that is not their primary goal, it allows them to silence their critics with the law on their side. Ultimately though, India is a democratic nation. If the government acts in its own interest, the people of India will see right through it. In 2014, the current ruling party took over from the opposition, not because of any single person, but because the people demanded change. One can win people over in the short term by mobilising the majority or by superb marketing campaigns but in the long run, democracy will win, no government can survive if its people are unhappy.

Maybe, for now, Indians should just be happy that social media is not being allowed to roam free without any accountability.

It is up to the citizens to decide which is the better evil.

If Icarus flies too close to the sun, he will be brought down.

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