Alarm bells for Social Media

The notification of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, the Government’s first move to regulate social media platforms, is, essentially, focused on regulating Big Tech through the prism of tackling law and order. These rules come even as a Joint Parliamentary Committee is in the final stages of discussion of a privacy Bill that covers aspects such as the role of social media intermediaries and the reach of Big Tech companies, and the privacy accorded to the users on such platforms.
Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) including internet and mobile-based communications are increasingly becoming pervasive and integral to day-to-day functioning of our lives- whether personal or official. ICTs offer an unprecedented opportunity of connecting to each and every individual and design the communication structure accordingly to each person. Such a structure can be defined and re-defined by both initiator and receiver of communication. Such a medium of communication is referred to as Social Media and it is transforming the way in which people connect with each other and the manner in which information is shared and distributed.  In India, Facebook alone has over 40 million users each. Even a microblogging site Twitter has about 16 million users. These sites offer an opportunity to reach out this audience at a keystroke. Many of these facilitate access through mobile devices and with nearly 900 million mobile users in India, it offers unprecedented outreach.
Just when the content on over-the-top (OTT) platforms were being hailed as an elixir for the artistic community, the government, it seems, has decided to clip its wings. The code of ethics that the government is contemplating does not appear to be a mere guideline. The three-tier regulatory framework, including an inter-ministerial committee, it has proposed almost seems draconian on paper.
Proposals like the parental lock, rating system and even the rules that suggest that the content should not impact India’s sovereignty and unity are acceptable norms. However, much of the regulations and the qualifying words such as ‘due caution and discretion as well as the potentially offensive impact of a film on matters of caste, race, gender, religion, disability, or sexuality are open to subjective interpretation and could lead to a witch-hunt. Ironically, without the regulations too, producers have had to face flak.
While at a personal level, the uptake and usage of such media is gaining rapid popularity, use and utility of such media for official purpose remain ambiguous. Many apprehensions remain including, but not limited to issues related to authorisation to speak on behalf of department/agency, technologies and platform to be used for communication, scope of the engagement, creating synergies between different channels of communication, compliance with existing legislations etc.
For many years now, the government has been asking Facebook-owned WhatsApp to allow traceability after there were cases of deaths due to mob-lynching in which messages were allegedly spread to mobilise the crowd. WhatsApp has denied these requests. Globally, too, other jurisdictions such as the US, the UK, and Australia have written to Facebook indicating that its plan to extend end-to-end encryption on its messaging platforms should not exclude a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect citizens.

- -Prabhakar Purandare

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