It’s time for India to regulate the internet’s social media platforms4 min read . Updated: 06 Sep 2020, 08:14 PM IST
The country must ensure their compliance with constitutional provisions and limits on free speech
This has become a pattern now. Every few months, there’s sound and fury over the conduct of a social media platform. Helped along with some exposes of an alleged bias. Allegations fly fast and furious, not made easier by the often hard-to-fathom behaviour of social media platforms themselves, ranging from a top executive holding an objectionable poster of “Brahminical patriarchy" or hiring known political party baiters for positions of responsibility.
Social media platforms describe themselves in many ways—as technological innovators or platforms—depending on which pitch you listen to. Full Disclosure: I have been a big fan and proponent of social media and the internet for over a decade-and-a-half, as it empowers the citizen to exercise his or her right to self-expression and also the right to information and alternate opinions. Social media has overthrown the monopolies once enjoyed by only a few influencers of public opinion.
For all its power to do good, it has been obvious for several years now that social media can also be misused. This dark underbelly stayed hidden for years, but its power to shape or distort narratives and incite public opinion and behaviour has been in full view for some time now. This power can become a dangerous force multiplier when accessed by those who want to spread hate, sow divisions and create violence.
The problem and threats have been discussed ad nauseum. The current disputes being played out in political circles suggest that these online platforms are not simply technological tools any more. They are a significant force on the internet that can cause harm as much as the good they can do us.
And so the need to regulate the “bad" aspects of these platforms. Some background is necessary before we jump into this discussion. India has a surfeit of laws to protect individuals and the state, both in the real world and in cyberspace. However, vis-a-vis the internet specifically, our laws and regulations are a mix of the old, the inflexible and the under-evolved. The challenges of 2008, when the Information Technology (IT) Act was adopted, are surely not the challenges of 2020, now that the power and presence of internet intermediaries like Facebook, Twitter, Google and e-com players like Jio, Amazon and Walmart have reached such high levels. We have too many laws and no real independent regulator, except the overloaded judiciary. The IT Act also gives a safe harbour to these social media platforms, absolving them of responsibility for content posted by users.
Recent and past events signal that it is time for a relook at our framework. It must be a two-pronged approach. First, initiate the regulation of social media by laying down fundamental principles and creating an independent regulatory body. Along with defending the rights to free speech and privacy, both of which I fought for in the Supreme Court and Parliament, I have held since 2017 that social and digital media need independent regulation, and urged action.
Our Constitution has defined free speech and its limits in Article 19(2). The principle that all platforms must abide by, therefore, is simple: any content or speech on a platform should pass the test of Article 19(2), and that alone. The take-down policies, guidelines and algorithms of all social media platforms should be compliant with and not go beyond that Article. And this standard should be equitably applied to all, as per Article 14. As a ground rule that all platforms must comply with, this is simple enough to set down in law.
Yes, there needs to be a smooth way to adjudicate cases that arise out of that obligation. The mechanism to resolve such disputes should be independent and quasi-judicial. There’s no need to set up a new institution. It may be better to either expand the mandate of an existing institution like the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) or Competition Commission of India, or merge bodies like the Telecom Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal and Cyber-Appellate Tribunal into one.
The second prong should be the contemporization of laws. We need a new legislative framework of the tech and internet sectors. There are too many laws and too many gaps. The legislative and institutional framework must be flexible, dynamic and evolutionary, unlike what exists presently. We should update laws like the Telegraph Act, TRAI Act, IT Act, Indian Penal Code (to deal with issues of defamation, etc) and the IT intermediary guidelines of the proposed Data Protection Act.
India, once world’s largest unconnected country, will soon be one of the world’s biggest internet-enabled nations, with over 800 million online. Looking beyond covid, India could emerge as a leading economic power. Technology will likely be a big part of our economy, accounting for almost a fifth of our overall output. Hence the need to harness the good aspects of it and regulate the bad. This is critical to our national strategy for growth.
Unregulated social and digital media could pose a threat to India’s rise as a trustworthy and responsible nation, as also Indian democracy, the world’s largest. These challenges can be addressed by regulating social media efficiently and modernizing our laws and institutions. The time for action has come.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar is a member of Parliament