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Self-regulatory board for social media firms won't take up user appeals on hate speech, Section 69A of IT Act, shows draft code

A draft code of the self regulatory board released by Internet Freedom Foundation says the body will not take up user appeals on content of ‘serious and egregious nature'

August 13, 2022 / 11:09 PM IST
IFF says the proposed exemptions in the code are ambiguous.

IFF says the proposed exemptions in the code are ambiguous.

A proposed self-regulatory body to deal with appeals users file against decisions of grievance officers of intermediaries like Google, Meta, Twitter and so on, will not take up appeals involving Section 69A of the IT Act, ‘hate speech’ and other content of ‘serious and egregious nature’.

This was revealed in a document obtained and released by Internet Freedom Foundation (IEF)  called the ‘Code for Establishing a Self Regulatory Grievance Redressal Board’.

Citing reports, IFF said that industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) was spearheading the creation of this self-regulatory body, and that the document was released in the ‘wider interest of citizens of India’.

It also pointed out that the headquarters of this proposed body, as mentioned in the draft IFF provided, is the same as that of IAMAI.

Moneycontrol was not independently able to verify the contents of this document. The publication has reached out to IAMAI with queries in this regard, as well as intermediaries such as Meta, Twitter, Google, Snapchat, Sharechat and others.

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A recent Reuters report said that Google and Snapchat were not in favour of this self-regulatory body, while companies such as Facebook and Twitter were in favour of it.

The idea of creating such a body was first floated by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology when it announced draft amendments to the IT Rules 2021.

While in the draft the ministry proposed the creation of a government-established grievance appellate committee to deal with appeals of users on decisions of intermediaries’ grievance officers, it later clarified that they were open to the creation of an industry-established self-regulatory body.

The whole need for a separate committee to deal with the grievances of users came because the ministry felt that the existing system – where users appeal to grievance redressal officers – was not working properly.

A government-established grievance appellate committee or an industry-established self-regulatory body will provide users with another option of appealing decisions, other than courts.

What the draft says

In the draft ‘Code for Establishing a Self Regulatory Grievance Redressal Board’ released by IFF, a self-regulatory body will deal with user appeals pertaining to ‘removal or reinstatement of user accounts or information, data, or communication links uploaded by users’.

A user may appeal to the Board within a period of 30 days from the expiry of the timeline mentioned in the IT Rules for the disposal of the grievance.

However, the draft clarifies that the board will not ‘entertain’ appeals on decisions of resident grievance officer involving content “of a serious and egregious nature including content related to hate speech, child sexual abuse, terrorism, influence operations or content which has been actioned pursuant to Section 69A of the IT Act or (ii) uploaded by users with whom the intermediary has pre-existing commercial arrangements.”

IFF found this clause particularly concerning as some of these grounds are not cross-referenced to legal definitions. They termed these proposed exemptions as ambiguous, and that it could translate to subjective application.

It is also important to note that the proposed committee will not handle appeals on Section 69A of the IT Act.

Twitter recently went to court against the Indian government citing that some of the blocking orders issued by the government under Section 69A were arbitrary, that the orders did not have enough information, and that some of the orders were disproportionate use of power.

Members of the board

The draft document released by IFF says that the Board will comprise a chairperson, who can be a retired judge of the Supreme Court or a High Court. It could also be an independent eminent person from the field of technology with 15 years of experience.

Apart from that, the self-regulatory body will have three expert members from the field of technology, and they should have a ‘deep understanding of the functioning of intermediaries and social media platforms’, the draft released by IFF said. These experts can also be from the field of law, child rights, human rights and so on.

The board will also consist of three signatory members who can be senior executives employed at companies.

What is the Secretariat?

The draft Self-Regulatory Body mentions a Secretariat, which will be responsible for the appointment of the body. The draft mentions that “all appointments to the Board shall be initiated by the Secretaiat….”

At several points throughout the document, there are mentions of this Secretariat which will not just have some role in the appointment of members of the body, but also have a significant role in the filing of an appeal with the board, registration of grievance, adjudication of the registered grievance and also functioning of the body itself.

However, at no point does the draft provide insight into the composition of this Secretariat.

IFF also pointed this out in its blog. It said, “There is a lack of clarity in the composition, management, powers and checks of power in the “Secretariat”.

IFF opposes creation of body

“We strongly oppose the creation of such an industry wide SRB. In today’s environment, self-regulation will lead to SMIs establishing extra caution and discretion in the case of politically controversial content, ultimately resulting in self-censorship and a vast chilling effect,” IFF said in its blog,

“Any efforts to self-regulate cannot be based on IT Rules, 2021 which restrict fundamental rights and are under challenge before the Supreme Court of India,” it added.
Aihik Sur covers tech policy, drones, space tech among other beats at Moneycontrol
first published: Aug 13, 2022 10:57 pm
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