The likes of Twitter, WhatsApp should work with govt to develop regulations rather than question them
The unseemly public spat between social media companies and the government over the new IT rules has once again turned the focus on achieving the right balance between the sovereign’s right to regulate online social media and the latter’s legitimate desire to protect user data and free speech on its platforms. In India, social media entities are largely unregulated. While this supports the free flow of data, it has also led to the rise of online hate-mongering, abusive language, and harassment. The government had notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 in February with the objective of making social media take more responsibility for the content uploaded on their respective platforms.
Even though the Centre had given three months to the industry to implement these rules, most of the social media companies had not fully complied until the May 25 deadline. At the heart of the dispute is this: are the likes of Twitter and Facebook mere platforms where users post their views or are they responsible for the content on the platforms?Twitter, for instance, claims it is just a platform but its actions, whether in labelling content as ‘manipulated’ or in banning users from its platform, suggest that it is more than a mere service provider. If Twitter wants to take on the role of regulator of content on its platform, it will have to comply with the government’s rules. It will also have to appoint an ombudsman (by whatever name he’s called) where users can take their grievances against the platform. Twitter did appoint a grievance officer last week after the government threatened action but the person is an outsider and not an employee. WhatsApp, for example, has refused to comply with the requirement to trace the originator of a message on its network citing a breach of user privacy. But user privacy is conveniently ignored in its new terms of service that allow it to share data with other Facebook-owned and third-party apps. While decrypting messages definitely goes against user privacy, the messaging platform could have explored options such as tagging messages with the original creator’s user ID or phone number.
Like it or not, social media platforms have come to occupy an important part in the democratic discourse. The IT rules are an attempt to usher in a transparent framework in terms of responsibilities and duties of intermediaries. Instead of taking an aggressive stand, the platforms should cooperate with lawmakers in evolving a regulatory framework that is acceptable to all. Operating in a vacuum is not an option and the social media companies ought not to be questioning the government’s right to frame rules and regulations. As for the government, it could do with a sense of urgency in getting the Personal Data Protection Bill passed into law. Without such a law, the government’s claim of working to protect its citizens’ privacy rings hollow.