February 24, 2024

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Grievance panels for social media: Govt to go ahead despite concerns

The Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) has received final approval from the Department of Legal Affairs over its proposal to create government-appointed bodies that will be empowered to review and possibly reverse content moderation and user grievance decisions taken by social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, The Indian Express has learnt.

The proposed changes, first introduced as part of draft amendments to the Information Technology Rules, 2021 (IT Rules) in June, are learnt to have been finalised with the final version expected to be notified within this week, official sources aware of the development said.

The development comes amid criticism from civil society activists, who have raised concerns about the government’s involvement in the appeals process, and even as the government had initially said that it would be open to social media companies setting up a self regulatory body among themselves provided that the government found the body’s functioning satisfactory.

What the changes essentially mean is that in case a user is not satisfied with the content moderation decision taken by a social company’s grievance officer, they can appeal that decision before the proposed government-appointed appeals committee. The government’s initial proposal had stemmed from users’ complaints about being deplatformed, or being removed from a social media site, without companies giving them an adequate avenue of hearing.

According to a senior government official, the Centre will set up one or more grievance appellate committees (GACs) within three months of the final amendments being notified. Each GAC is slated to have a chairperson and two whole time members appointed by the Centre, one of which will be a government official. The GAC will also have two “independent members,” the official said. The initial draft of the amendments had not made the exact composition of the GAC clear.

The final rules are also expected to allow the GAC to seek assistance from people who may have adequate expertise and experience in a subject matter while dealing with users’ appeals. The GAC could adopt an “online dispute resolution mechanism” where the entire appeal process, from its filing to the final decision, will be done online. Social media companies will also have to compile every order passed by the GAC and report them on their respective websites.


Criticised by activists

Development comes amid criticism from civil society activists, who have raised concerns about the government’s involvement in the appeals process.

Any person aggrieved by a decision of the grievance officer of a social media intermediary will be allowed to file an appeal to the GAC within a period of thirty days. The GAC is expected to deal with the appeal and resolve it within a month of the receipt of the appeal.

Queries sent to MeitY did not elicit a response until publication.

The government’s proposal to oversee content moderation and user grievance decisions taken by social media platforms had drawn the ire of civil society activists. For instance, the Delhi-based digital rights group Internet Freedom Foundation, in a submission to MeitY in July, had said that the provision could “make the Central Government (rather than an independent judicial or a regulatory body) the arbiter of permissible speech on the internet. It would incentivise social media platforms to suppress any speech that may not be palatable to the government, public officials or those who can exert political pressure”.

The government had previously kept the option open for social media platforms to create a self regulatory body to handle user grievances, provided that the companies could prove their system was effective. Social media companies, along with industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), had chalked up contours of a self-regulatory mechanism in response to that. However, The Indian Express had earlier reported that while firms like Meta and Twitter had supported the self regulatory body, Snap and Google had opposed certain contours of it, flagging concerns over the potential inability to legally challenge any final content moderation decisions of a self-governing body, in addition to the difference in the moderation policies of different platforms.

In an interaction with this paper in August, Chandrasekhar had also said that the self-regulatory body cannot be “dominated by the Big Tech”, and should have equal representation from smaller start-ups. “We would like to see a diversity, smaller Indian and foreign start-ups equally and visibly represented, and policies made with their inputs as well,” he had said earlier.