On 25 February 2021, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar released new social media rules and guidelines, namely the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. The Centre cited their reasons for these new, stricter laws as a step to curb the circulation of “unlawful” messages. However, people have expressed concern and opposition to these new laws. Today, we will find out why.
At the press conference, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said these laws were a “soft-touch oversight” mechanism to counter the spread of fake news, illegal porn, and other unwanted, malicious content. Of course, we don’t want this content online and it is a huge help in that sense. However, the way this content regulation will be conducted is a huge step towards surveillance culture. The rules will make big social media companies deploy tech to identify and remove unlawful content, but in doing so people will be pre-censored by inaccurate and biased algorithms. These rules allow the government to make companies like Whatsapp break end-to-end encryption if it wants to find the “originator” of a particular message. This is a huge privacy issue.
Companies who refuse to comply with government orders (to, for example, take down certain content) will suffer blocking or losing immunity from being held accountable for the malicious handling of their platforms by their users. These companies are forced to comply with the demands of the government. Further, the rules have been formulated vaguely, there is so much room for the government to play favourites and overlook some companies and bully the rest. The government can also use this to one day remove content that is not “malicious”, they only have to deem it unwanted for it to be taken down.
The new grievance redressal mechanisms have also made grievance redressal officers responsible for receiving complaints and resolving them within a shortened period of 15 days. But they are not required to give reasons for the actions taken by them regarding complaints. These Intermediary Laws have also doubled the duration of data retention to a striking 180 days for investigative purposes, even after a user has deleted their account.
The introduction of particularly these Intermediary Rules is a big change and drastically affects the way one experiences the internet and one’s protection on social media. It affects our freedom of speech and privacy. One should be aware of the implications of these laws and as citizens of a democracy decide for ourselves, is this what we want? Is this good? Is there a better way?