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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Social media may have to answer for user activity

Social media firms may soon have to take greater responsibility for the content we post on their platforms. With govts turning their attention towards regulating platforms, Facebook and Twitter risk losing one of the key protections the law offers them. Mint explores.

Social media firms may soon have to take greater responsibility for the content we post on their platforms. With governments turning their attention towards regulating platforms, Facebook and Twitter risk losing one of the key protections the law offers them. Mint explores.

What is safe harbour protection?

Safe harbour laws protect internet companies from being sued for posts and information that users share through them. It’s the law that keeps Facebook, Twitter, or even Zomato, from being sued for posts, comments or reviews we post on such platforms. Section 230 of the United States’ Communications Decency Act covers this aspect, while Section 79 of Information Technology (IT) Act protects social media platforms in India. Both the US and India have been looking to bring reforms to these laws and giving social media companies more responsibility for the posts users make on them.

What will happen if social media loses it?

Those who oppose reforms claim that removing safe harbour laws will actually increase censorship on these platforms. The argument is that if Facebook can be sued for a post users make, then it will actively try to avoid such suits by censoring any post that can cause trouble. The platforms also argue that they are only middlemen, and removing these protections will be akin to shooting the messenger. These laws allow WhatsApp to provide end-to-end encryption on chats and upon being requested access, tell the authorities that they can’t get such data, which means removing them could increase government surveillance.

Continued surge
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Continued surge

What’s the logic for denying safe harbour protection?

Lawmakers have argued that social media firms no longer act as messengers alone. Since Facebook, Twitter and others use proprietary algorithms, which determine how information will flow through them, they are essentially making decisions that they should be responsible for. The fact that they moderate posts is another reason why they should be held responsible.

Why have these rights not  been  reformed  yet?

While many reports have said governments want to remove safe harbour protections, that’s not exactly true. Most experts believe that lawmakers will instead impose restrictions on platforms that give them greater responsibility. They may add checks and balances which platforms have to ensure before they can claim safe harbour protection. What these checks will be remain unanswered, though. Some say no government wants to be the first to take these decisions, and are instead waiting for others to create a blueprint.

When  is  the  levy  of  new regulations expected?

Safe harbour protection reforms were discussed at a Congressional hearing in the US last week. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, CEOs of Twitter and Facebook, respectively, were asked why the government shouldn’t bring reforms to this law. India has also been working on updating its own version of these laws, but reports say that Intermediary Guidelines had been delayed since the law ministry wanted them to be in sync with the Data Protection Bill that’s expected to come next year. There’s not much clarity for now.

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