New regulations to rein in digital platforms - GulfToday

New regulations to rein in digital platforms

BRP Bhaskar

@brpbhaskar

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Indian journalist with over 50 years of newspaper, news agency and television experience.

Social Media Giants

Representational image.

A new code drawn up by the Indian government to regulate the working of social media and other digital platforms appears to be designed to meet immediate political needs rather than serve long-term  interests of society.

The companies have been given three months to comply with the regulations. A code drawn up in 2011 to deal with social media was in place until now. The new one also covers Over-the-top (OTP) platforms which came up subsequently.

Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar provided details of the code at a joint press conference last week.

The 2011 code was brought in under the Information Technology Act, and IT ministry was the regulator. The new code, too, has been brought in under the IT Act but it vests regulatory authority in I&B ministry.

A government statement said the new code was drafted in response to concerns voiced by civil society, film-makers, political leaders, trade bodies etc, highlighting the “imperative need for an appropriate institutional mechanism” to regulate digital platforms. But does it really create an appropriate mechanism?  

The code empowers the I&B Secretary to order a platform to block public access to a specific content. He can do so without even giving it an opportunity to be heard, if it is considered expedient to do so.

Few among those who called for regulation will see this as an appropriate way of doing it as bureaucrats are prone to act in the interests of their political masters.

Like the old code, the new one too envisages governmental intervention in the working of digital media in the interests of the state and its security.  But more often than not such intervention has been to protect the interests of the government of the day.

The new code has come in the wake of intense social media activity in support of farmers from several states who have been protesting at sites along the Delhi borer for more than three months against the Modi government’s agricultural reform laws.

On several occasions the government asked Facebook and Twitter to take down posts which it considered objectionable. They complied with its directives s but after putting up some resistance.

The IT Minister expressed the hope that the new code will ensure speedy compliance with directives.

He reeled out statistics to show that some digital platforms have more users in India than there are people in the United States. These include WhatsApp (over 530 million users), YouTube (over 448 million) and Facebook (around 410 million).

He suggested that the comparatively low Twitter figure may be due to loss of customers to Koo app, its Indian competitor. It was a gentle reminder of the importance of the Indian digital market which is yet to peak.

One problem the government encountered in dealing with US-based social media companies was the plea of their local officials that the person who has the authority to take a decision was located elsewhere.

To get over this problem the code requires every digital platform to appoint a Compliance Officer and a Nodal Officer both resident in India.

The Compliance Officer will be responsible for ensuring that the platform complies with all laws and rules. The Nodal Officer will be responsible for coordinating with law enforcement authorities in investigations relating to posts that fall foul of the law.

The digital platforms are also required to set up a grievance redressal machinery, headed by a Grievance Officer resident in India to attend to complaints from the public about content. Time-frames have been set for the Compliance Officer to comply with governmental directives and for the Grievance Officer to resolve an issue raised before him.

Essentially the government wants digital platforms reaching Indian audiences to follow the guidelines laid down for local media outlets.

It recommends to the news websites the programme code under the Cable Television Networks Regulation Act and Norms of Journalistic Conduct of the Press Council of India, which broadly guide the content put out in television and print media. But it wants the foreign companies to accept them as part of self-regulation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a leader who used free social media in his rise to power. It is ironic that his government wants to domesticate it.

Media regulation is a matter with an immediate bearing on Freedom of Speech and Expression, which forms part of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed to Indian citizens by the Constitution. It is too serious a matter to be left for settlement between entities whose primary focus is on political gain or commercial profit.

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