With the aim of making the social media intermediaries accountable to ensure a secure, credible and dependable internet, and to make certain that the constitutional rights of the Indian citizens are not contravened by the big-tech platforms, the Central Government of India recently notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2022.

The amended Rules make it mandatory for the intermediaries i.e., the social media platforms, such as Twitter, Meta, Instagram, YouTube, etc. to comply with the law of the land.

The revised Rules specify that the intermediary is required to publish its rules and regulations, privacy policy and user agreement on its website/mobile-based application or both and ensure compliance with the same. Any change in rules and regulations, privacy policy or user agreement is also to be intimated to the users periodically and at least once a year. Further, reasonable efforts shall be made by the intermediary to not host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, store, update or share any information that:

  1. belongs to another person over which the user does not have any right;
  2. is obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, invasive of another’s privacy, insulting or harassing on the basis of gender, racially or ethnically objectionable, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion or caste with the intent to incite violence;
  3. is harmful to children;
  4. infringes any patent, trademark, copyright or other proprietary rights;
  5. deceives or misleads the addressee about the origin of the message or intentionally communicates any misinformation or information which is patently false and untrue or misleading in nature;
  6. impersonates another person;
  7. threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order, or causes incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence, or prevents investigation of any offence, or is insulting other nation;
  8. contains a software virus or any other computer code, file or program designed to interrupt, destroy or limit the functionality of any computer resource;
  9. violates any law for the time being in force.

The amended Rules also provide for the constitution of the Grievance Appellate Committees, before which any person aggrieved by the decision of the Grievance Office of the social media companies may prefer an appeal. Each Grievance Appellate Committee shall consist of a chairperson and two whole-time members appointed by the Central Government, of which one shall be a member ex-officio and two shall be independent members.

Any complaint before the Grievance Appellate Committee is to be acknowledged and resolved expeditiously and, in a time-bound manner. The Committee shall adopt an online dispute resolution mechanism wherein the entire appeal process, from the filing of the appeal to the decision thereof, shall be conducted through digital mode.

While the Union ministers have hailed the present amendment to IT Rules as one which empowers the users, the move has been condemned by the public policy and advocacy groups who believe that the constitution of Grievance Appellate Committees would essentially hinder online free speech. The appointment of members of the Committees by the central government would also lead to a reasonable apprehension of bias.

The advocacy group, Internet Freedom Foundation, in one of its tweets stated, “This will incentivise platforms to remove/suppress any speech unpalatable to the government or those exerting political pressure and increase government control and power since the government will be effectively able to also decide what content must be displayed by platforms”.

Some apprehensions have also been raised towards adequately staffing these committees.

To conclude, regulating online content has been a bone of contention between the government and the social media giants. However, once the Grievance Appellate Committees are set up, it would become obligatory for the social media companies to follow the instructions of the government-appointed members, shifting the power to the state.