The need to regulate social media and the government guidelines

Social Media influencers have become a significant part of everyone’s reality today. Having a large number of followers on social media, they refine details of anything, set forth products and services, offer advice and promote political opinions that have a significant impact on a wide audience. But there’s always a catch!

The car of our lives today is driven by a smartphone and we sit in the backseat, and these smartphone screens are also our window into other people’s lives. Gone are the days when we needed famous celebrities endorsing a brand for us to buy them. Today all our netizens need is a ‘social media influencer’ to persuade them to purchase products ranging from vanity to essential stuff. With great power, comes great responsibilities. Someone who publishes messages that match their ideology and benefit them financially and has the supremacy to impact everyone around them and whole communities should be held accountable for their actions, omissions and the creation of legitimate expectations.

There have been instances when small businesses are often misled by believing that if they send influencers their products for free, they will get featured in posts that will generate a great deal of interest. But no such posts have been created even after influencers have been paid a hefty amount of collaboration fees. Such exploitations are often ignored, and small businesses tend to lose hope of becoming scalable. Many businesses being at the heart of the economy need assurance that the government has regulations to look after scams like that.

 

The Central Government of India on 25th February has released new guidelines for digital media intermediaries to make people and companies on social media, digital news media and the OTT platforms responsible for “misuse and abuse”. These strict new guidelines for social media intermediaries, which will force platforms like WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube etc. to help identify the “author” of “illegal” messages. These platforms will have to eliminate these messages within a specified time period and establish grievance redress mechanisms and assist government agencies in their investigations.

Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad at a press conference explaining the essence of ‘The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, has called for a “soft-touch oversight” mechanism to deal with concerns like continued dissemination of fake news, abuse of these platforms to share fragmented images of women and content linked to revenge porn or to solve business rivalries.

The aim of this amendment is to ensure a grievance redressal mechanism for the users on social media, according to Information & Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar. To inculcate the quintessence of responsible freedom to the people and companies hiding behind their mobile and laptop screens, these guidelines will help regulate these people’s curated content aired through social media and OTT platforms. But the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting decided to release the OTT Regulation and Code of Ethics for Digital Media along with the Intermediary Guidelines, 2021, without any consultation with the parties concerned. This infringes with the Government of India’s Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy which states that the department/ministry must release the draft legislation in the public domain for at least a minimum period of 30 days. Hence, this has stirred controversy.

Many stakeholders believe that these amends are a flawed consultation as they are neither under the scrutiny of Parliament nor statutory as they only provide the government broad powers to regulate and censor social media platforms. The new rule provides the Secretary of Information and Broadcasting with the authority to directly block content for public access to specific content in an emergency. And this ‘emergency’ is subjected to the ruling party’s opinions.

Before streaming any content on a social media platform, a company will have to check whether their content qualifies the three-tier grievance redressal structure set up by the Central Government and also differentiate their content 5 age-based categories which are U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult) with an option of parental lock feature for the content coming under the U/A 13+ or higher. They should also have an authentic age verification machinery to regulate their content under the age categories.

Not only that, any OTT Platform and the online news media will have to submit a monthly report to the ministry mentioning all the details of the grievance received and the measures taken to dispose of those grievances.

These new rules are not prima facie severe for the social media user’s freedom, but they surely affect your constitutional right to Freedom of Expression. Are you willing to give up your rights over the regulation of social media?

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