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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Moderation’s broken but this isn’t the way to fix it

Moderation’s broken but this isn’t the way to fix it

It’s a bad idea for the government to wade into the messy business of social media restraints as a super-arbiter. A self-regulatory device under a truly neutral panel would be a better bet

Photo: iStockPremium
Photo: iStock

Who wants to moderate the moderators? Social media platforms have tripped up in regulating the content they profit from. The list of charges against them, from enabling election fraud and hate speech to endangering children and engendering violence, has exposed their failure at moderation. It’s broken, sure, but is the government best placed to fix it? India’s draft amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics) Rules put out this week propose just that. As the Centre sees it, users must have a way to contest the decisions of platforms, whether these are on taking down posts or barring them, and if its proposals are adopted—they’re up for public review—it will appoint an appellate body empowered to overturn those calls. For swift redressal, the revised IT rules also demand that grievance officers at major intermediaries respond to user complaints on false posts or content that “threatens integrity of India" (among other things) within 72 hours instead of the earlier 15 days. Plus, platforms are expected to “cause" users not to post content that crosses red lines.

These are red flags. State oversight of moderation could open the doors for overreach and censorship, even if not all such tussles are likely to be about free speech. For better or worse, social media is a big part of our noisy public square online. A state-appointed entity judging which posts are kosher could push us down a slippery slope. The record of our political class, across party lines, inspires little confidence. A range of ruses, from national interests to fake news, have been used to go after tweets, hashtags, posts and even imaginary “toolkits". There is also something wrong about governments getting into speech moderation. Many of last year’s IT Rules were legally challenged and both the Bombay and Madras high courts have stayed provisions that asked digital news companies to comply with a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism headed by the government; these rules were found to violate the right to freedom of expression and were rejected as an attempt to “control the media". Yet, it is also clear that platforms cannot expect to get away with opaque and arbitrary line calls on what’s okay and what isn’t. Given the overload, a large portion of these are being made by algorithms that run in a context vacuum. The aggrieved can go to court, of course, but our judiciary can hardly handle its offline burden of cases.

Could there be a middle path? Rajeev Chandrasekhar, minister of state for IT, has said that the Centre is open to the idea of self-regulation by platforms. Globally, Facebook has an oversight board that has not achieved much; by design, it addresses only a fraction of disputes between users and moderators. But India could have its own pan-industry panel packed with eminent Indian jurists and other such citizens known for their independence to oversee an arbitration team equipped with resources and expertise to resolve a rising tide of complaints. If Big Tech offers to set up such a system, this may be a way out. Authorities worldwide have been trying to hold Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, accountable for the spread of toxic stuff. But overzealous efforts can cost us our privacy; India’s IT rules last year asked for messages to be traceable, for instance, which would technically require all chats decrypted. A world polarized by social media needs saviours, not politically picked super-censors.

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Published: 09 Jun 2022, 09:55 PM IST
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