Minister of State for Electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekar on Saturday said the government may consider penalising social media companies, if needed, for not addressing user grievances and shying away from accountability to make the internet a safe and trusted place.
The comments come a day after the government’s amendment to the IT Rules 2021, which included setting up of grievance appellate committees (GAC) to look into complaints by users of social media. These committees will adjudicate complaints by users relating to blocking of content or accounts, after the complaints are not addressed or the users get an unsatisfactory response from the redressal officers of the social media firms concerned. However, the user will have the right to seek judicial remedy at any time.
He said the ‘broken’ grievance redressal mechanism currently being offered by social media platforms and lakhs of messages flagging users’ concerns around unresolved complaints had forced its hand. “Grievance Appellate Committee will be an important institution in the coming days for internet and intermediaries. We will soon make an announcement about its structure, constitution, scope, and terms of reference,” Chandrasekhar said at a press briefing. Chandrasekhar emphasised that the new panels — a couple to start with — will not substitute the civil court system, and their decision can be challenged.
Asked about massive capacities that would be needed to deal with the large volumes of user complaints, the minister said the panels were, in fact, a disincentive to intermediaries not to continue the “status quo, casual way of approaching grievance redresssal”.
“One scenario is that they (platforms) address through grievance redressal mechanism, they create more capacity. If they don’t, then Grievance Appellate Committee creates capacity. It is not an area the government is keen to get into, we are doing it reluctantly. We are doing it because we have an obligation and duty to ‘digital nagriks’ (digital citizens) that their grievances should be heard,” the minister said.
Changes in IT Rules
Comments come a day after amendment to the IT Rules 2021, which included setting up of grievance appellate panels to look into complaints by social media users.
He also said while social media norms require platforms to remove illegal content within 72 hours of it being flagged, he feels the timelines are “too long” and platforms should take down such content “as fast as possible”. He said the IT ministry was keen on prescribing a 24-hour timeline for removal of illegal content (as specified under rules) given that “virality and velocity” of misinformation tends to be much higher, but then finally settled for 72 hours after wide consultations.
The minister also said social media companies could lose access to their ‘safe harbour’ status on not complying with IT rules. Currently under Section 79 of IT Act 2000, intermediaries are protected from any legal prosecution related to content on their platforms. If they lose the status, they will lose that legal immunity for content posted on their platforms.
Protection of users
Meanwhile, Minister of Communications and IT, Ashwini Vaishnaw has said the latest amendment of intermediary guidelines is focused on protection of online users. The 3-member Grievance Appellate Committee(s) will be set in three months, according to the gazette notification.
Soon after the tweaks in IT rules were notified on Friday, Vaishnaw said, “The focus of the amendment of intermediary guidelines is on the protection of online users … Intermediary to ensure accessibility of its services to all users and respect their rights under the Constitution of India,” he noted. According to the amendments, the committees will be able to review content moderation and other decisions of social media companies. “The central government shall, by notification, establish one or more grievance appellate committees within three months from the date of commencement of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2022,” the notification said. FE & PTI