The new clause in India’s proposed amendment of the Information Technology Act puts the onus on social media companies for non-user generated content shared on their platforms, hoping to curb circulation of misinformation, abusive and objectionable content.
India has added a new clause in the proposed amendment of Section 79 of the Information Technology Act 2000. According to the new clause, social media companies — such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, TikTok, ShareChat, among others — will be held accountable for non-user generated content published on their platforms, including sponsored content.
So far, social media platforms have not been accountable for content shared on their platforms. Promotional content, or advertisements, which generate revenue for these companies, have so far not been monitored. So is the content shared by influencers. Content generated by influencers are considered user-generated content, and it is up to the influencer to add disclaimers that some of the content they share is paid for.
The new clause comes at a time when social media companies together have the highest share of revenue from advertisements across digital medium. According to a report by Dentsu Aegis Network, about 28 percent of the Rs 13,683 crore digital advertising revenue in 2019 went in the pockets of social media firms.
Naturally, the question arises — if traditional media companies are bound to carry disclaimers for advertisements, sponsored content and promotional content, why not the social media companies?
By far, social media companies operate as facilitators, or intermediaries, having no ownership of the content that get shared on their platforms. They have bypassed their responsibilities. Things took a different turn in 2019 after TikTok, owned by Chinese Bytedance, got into a legal battle with Twitter-backed ShareChat that forced ShareChat to remove more than 100 videos from its platform. The dispute was over ownership of the content.
ShareChat argued TikTok had no ownership over the content as it operates as a facilitator, while Bytedance claimed rights over those videos that were first uploaded on TikTok.
The purpose of the TikTok-ShareChat fight might have been different, but the battle did ring a bell in the minds of India’s regulators — if a social media company can claim rights over content uploaded on its platform, then it should also be accountable for content that is shared or uploaded on its platform.
If these companies are held accountable by the laws of the land, they will be forced to control what gets circulated on their platforms. Without a doubt, that’s the need of the hour, especially when India has been struggling to fight misinformation and fake news.
Last year, Facebook, reportedly removed 687 pages and accounts linked to the Congress and also a bunch of ruling pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pages that had a combined reach of 200 million. That, however, did not stop circulation of fake news, according to a report by Reuters.
The root of the fake news menace is much bigger. Political parties have been using social media quite efficiently. In January 2019, Time reported on how the ruling BJP has been using its volunteers to spread fake news using WhatsApp.
To add to that, there are promoted trends, promoted posts and promoted accounts, use of Bollywood celebrities for promotions at a fee, or consulting firms such as Cambridge Analytica, which allegedly masterminded political machines backed by social media in the 2014 general elections in India.
Most of them are promotional content that can be termed advertisements under disguise.
The truth is, sponsored content should come with proper disclaimers, so that consumers know the reality of the content. That’s only possible when it is taken care of at the source. By holding social media companies accountable for what get circulated on their platforms, India’s lawmakers hare trying to reach the roots.
That’s a good step. Once social media companies are considered owners of all content, including that generated and sponsored by non-users, they will be forced to act smart — and the clean-up begins there.
It’s natural that social media companies won’t like it. The responsibility and accountability will cost them high. Like it happened in the past, there will be court cases challenging the proposed regulations.
The only respite for the social media firms is the ‘safe harbour protection’ clause for the intermediaries. However, safe harbour will only be applicable as long they act as a pure-play facilitator — and not creator or modifier in any manner — of the content posted on their platforms, like they operate with only user generated content.For non-user generated content, which generates revenue for social media companies, it is time for them to be accountable.