Any oversight body for social media should protect free speech with well-defined caveats
The Centre’s proposal to set up an appellate committee with the power to review the content moderation decisions of social media platforms merits a cautious welcome. The caveat is that in the process, the role played by these platforms in hosting robust discussions on issues of public interest and importance, must not be undermined.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the job of content moderation cannot be left wholly to social media platforms. In India, social media entities are largely unregulated. While this allows for free flow of data, it has also led to the rise of online hate-mongering, abusive language, and harassment. The Centre had notified The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 in February last year with the objective of making social media assume more responsibility for the content uploaded on their platforms. But this is not enough. The recent disclosures made by a whistleblower show how senior executives at Facebook India decided to pull down posts made by one political party while similar posts by another party were left untouched. Back in 2019, Facebook took down 1,000 pages and accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour or spam, based on its own assessment that the people behind the activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves with the objective of manipulating people. Facebook based its action on user behaviour, not the content they posted. Twitter has been accused of bias by some groups who have been complaining that the network is banning accounts supportive of a particular ideology. In the US, a Congressional committee had summoned the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, and Google to testify about the misuse of private data after leaks to Cambridge Analytica came to light. Even though Facebook has set up an oversight board, it could end up as a cautionary tale against private governance. While platform owners can argue that they have the right to decide what goes in and what’s taken down, the reality is that social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter cannot be treated like any other private entity. They exert immense influence on the social, economic, and political outcomes of a society.
Therefore, social media companies, left to themselves, can neither be trusted to uphold freedom of speech and user privacy nor to be impartial in content moderation. Oversight cannot be left to the governments either as they often are interested parties in social media posts. And thus comes in the idea of a statutory body for independent regulatory oversight of social media platforms. The proposed appellate committee should have representation from the industry, law and policy experts, supporters of free speech and human rights activists. The committee should oversee how the online platforms respond to harmful content and use its powers to enforce standards. India’s digital growth is at the nascent stage and it is important for all stakeholders to ensure that the laws governing the Internet are robust and clearly defined. It is important to strike a balance between promoting free speech and containing hate speech. The committee should be tasked with exercising due diligence — as against a faceless official deciding what is in the ‘public interest’.
Published on June 09, 2022