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Home >Opinion >Views >Our social media rules mustn’t gag free speech

At the turn of the millennium, former US president Bill Clinton had dismissed China’s efforts to control online speech thus: “Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall." He proved prescient, but only briefly. While Google pried open the internet’s wonders and social media networks took chatter online, Beijing erected its Great Firewall and began to resemble the Big Brother of Apple’s iconic TV commercial, 1984. The irony today, even as Big Tech and nation-states snarl at each other, is that the free world’s open forums are so widely sprawled out on the web, so eyeball-affixing, and so suffused with depraved images and incendiary lies that their content could distort democracy and threaten liberty. Just as yelling “fire" in a closed hall is not okay, what goes online does need restraints. The perplexity is how this is best done. Internal filters by Facebook, Twitter, etc.? State supervision? Late last week, New Delhi made its choice clear. India’s government rolled out its Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021—portrayed as regulation with a “light touch". Yet, their details leave sufficient space for that touch to get clammy, or even suffocative should they get bent in ways our police often try.

Under the rules, films and serials streamed across the internet will have age-gates rather than censor snips. This is a relief, but, as with online news sites, platforms that serve this sort of content must deploy gag orders as deemed applicable under a triple-tier system of oversight, with their self-nannying overseen by a “self-regulatory" body that will operate under a government panel. If this regulatory set-up offers no assurance of independence, the rules are even stiffer for social media: Every app with a big user base must put in place a mechanism for grievance redressal, resolve complaints promptly, keep the state in the loop, and take stuff off the web within specified time frames if official authorities so ask. To the extent that these platforms are to be held accountable for inflammatory posts, this system could play fire extinguisher. But, with private spaces having blurred with public squares, the rules could end up as tools of invasive surveillance.

Social media firms must reveal within 72 hours the “originator" of an unlawful message. If platforms fail to comply with such demands, they risk losing their “safe harbour" shield against prosecution over content. But origin-tracing could upend the promise of end-to-end encryption made by chat apps such as WhatsApp, and cast their privacy in doubt as a fallout. Meanwhile, what all falls afoul of the new rules—and would be subject to state directives—is rather broadly outlined. Apart from violations of law, the barred list includes any threat to public order and India’s sovereignty and integrity, as also offences of decency and morality, all of which could be twisted out of context by cyber-cops to stifle legitimate dissent. Given the primacy that we must accord free speech, this rule-kit should have been put to parliamentary scrutiny first. Instead, the Centre has imposed them under provisions of the Information Technology Act of 2000, the coverage of which has oddly been stretched to all online expression. Applied judiciously, these rules could do this country a good turn, sure, but their misuse would push our democracy China’s way. And Indians online do not want to be under watch.

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