The Battle For Online Privacy
India Today|June 21, 2021
The new IT rules have led to a face-off between the union government and social media giants. But amid all the furore, have user rights become the biggest casualty?
Kaushik Deka

National award-winning filmmaker Utpal Borpujari is a confused man. As a former journalist, he understands the importance of free speech in a democracy. At the same time, he acknowledges the need for a regulatory mechanism to weed out misinformation and other objectionable content from social media platforms that have admittedly given an empowering voice to millions of users. As a filmmaker, Borpujari is a strong votary of creative freedom, though he concedes that a sense of ethics and responsibility should guide such liberties.

So, on February 25, when the Centre released the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, for digital and OTT platforms, he did not question the rationale behind the guidelines (ostensibly to provide the ordinary citizen with a grievance redressal system). But a careful reading of the new rules left Borpujari, like many others, worried. “From experience, we know we can’t trust Twitter or Facebook to guard our privacy, but these guidelines do little to help me as an internet user,” he says.

The new IT rules are at the heart of a big battle between the Union government and big tech companies now. Aimed at making the foreign companies comply with Indian laws—which they often evade, abdicating their responsibilities and accountability to millions of users—the rules also give the executive machinery the power to censor any digital content with very little judicial supervision. “The publication of a transparency report along with clearly defined processes of grievance redressal will make the internet a safer place for users. But making the government the final arbiter has raised the hackles of many,” says Subimal Bhattacharya, a cyber security expert and former India head of General Dynamics.

Why did the Centre frame the rules?

There is unanimity among all stakeholders that a transparent and accountable mechanism is needed to prevent the rampant abuse of social media platforms to spread misinformation, defame individuals, transmit sexually explicit material and violate copyrights. In the absence of a data privacy law, the Information Technology Act, 2000, did not have adequate provisions to regulate the evolved functioning of the digital platforms, particularly social media intermediaries such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and instant messenger services such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal.

What added to the complications was the absence of a transparent grievance redressal mechanism within social media platforms. The IT Act of 2000 also provided “safe harbour” to these ‘intermediary’ companies—a passive conduit of information without any active role in the content—and exempted them from any criminal liability for the content they published. The Union government now claims the core of the IT rules is to create a transparent, readily available forum for redressal of grievances. Digital policy observers to acknowledge the need for such an oversight. “If the traditional counterparts of these mediums, such as TV, print, voice call, text message, can operate within a regulatory structure, why should the new mediums not have the same oversight?” asks Jaijit Bhattacharya, president, Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research.

Several social platforms claim to have their own in-built mechanism to filter objectionable content, but such content curation has often faced allegations of randomness, ideological bias and commercial motivations. The lack of transparency is evident as they never inform users why any particular content was flagged or taken down. In a recent controversy over an alleged “toolkit”, Twitter was accused of political bias due to this vague mechanism.

Twitter’s public policy says it labels “significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated” content as “manipulated media”. It claims the platform uses its own technology or third parties to determine if the content is manipulative. The randomness of Twitter’s policy was at play in the toolkit case as it flagged some tweets with the same content but left several others untouched. Another fiasco happened when the platform removed the ‘blue tick’ verification mark from the personal account of vice-president M. Venkaiah Naidu and several top RSS leaders. The randomness and opaqueness of such processes have raised the clamour for scrutiny of the functioning of these intermediaries.

“We need to know what is happening in the invisible mechanics of the automated public sphere. If something is tagged as manipulated misinformation, it is important to explain why,” says Anita Gurumurthy, executive director, IT for Change. Osama Manzar, an IT expert and member of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), believes such malfunctioning can be avoided if the platforms do a local level of fact-checking in the local context and language. “Wrong content should not only be removed but the reason for the removal must reach the user,” he says.

If social media platforms have shown inconsistent content curation, influenced by ideological bias and commercial considerations, the government has also often sought to play regulator. In the past six months, there have been several episodes where the Centre and Twitter have crossed swords and, on most occasions, Twitter was forced to comply with the government’s demands. Earlier this month, the Union government asked Twitter to take action against cartoonist Manjul whose tweets were believed to have violated the laws of the country. Twitter did not comply.

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