Social Media Guidelines: Empowering Users or Endangering Free Speech

Centre moves to regulate social impact of Big Tech, insists desi users would be empowered and better protected. Controversy sparked with warnings that new rules have not been sanctioned by Parliament and might endanger free speech and creativity.

Centre Moves to Clarify Big Tech Regulation Vacuum

The Centre’s recent announcement of new guidelines for social media platforms, OTT providers and digital media has been causing a stir in the online community. Government officials insist, however, that the regulatory framework aims to protect and empower desi users. The move comes in the context of a wider attempt to close the gap in legislation intended to keep Big Tech in check.

The Personal Data Protection Bill (“PDP Bill”) is not expected to be adopted soon, even though it has been in the making for nearly four years. Inspired by the European Union’s GDPR, the PDP Bill’s drafting was promoted by a special committee, with its first draft published back in July 2018. The Centre took some time to amend it when finally the PDP Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha in December 2019.

The Government claims the new formal guidelines are created to ultimately benefit users. Rules are expected to keep in check Big Tech and social media giants abolishing the “safe harbour” they used to enjoy that limited their liability over content posted on their platforms by users. In certain (serious) cases, the origin of a message or a tweet will now be traced.

Grievance redressal mechanisms are at the core of the new policy: existing procedures are to be enhanced, with directly responsible officers residing in India to be hired by concerned online businesses. OTT providers will also be required to self-regulate and self-classify their content along appropriate age categories.

Social Casino Platforms and Popular Networks Will Be Affected Differently

India’s immense young population has been raised along with the growth of the internet. Culturally and technologically, a significant portion of the nation is naturally accustomed to online services – from education to job hunting, from banking to online casino entertainment on websites like PureWin.com, and from playing teen patti real money to watching streaming videos and OTT shows.

Social casino platforms provide instant casual gaming and are mainly located on general-purpose sites rather than dedicated online gaming environments. Big Tech and Social Media (e.g. Facebook in both cases) has made such casual online recreation quite prominent over the course of time. In fact, Centre’s new rules differentiate between significant social networks and smaller online intermediaries. The proposed boundary between the two categories has not been announced yet, yet experts have claimed it will be set at 50 lakh users.

Given the distinction in economic and social impact, casual entertainment and social casino platforms will hopefully be subjected to different, more lenient rules – especially considering that many are housed in Bharat, unlike most offshore tech giants.

Why the New Social Media Rules Spark Controversy

The PDP Bill itself is still in the hands of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) for final recommendations. After several timeline extensions, the Bill’s scope is to be expanded to include overall data protection and non-personal data handling. To this date, the Committee is split over key matters such as whether data should be stored in India and how far should the Government’s power and concessions go.

The overarching concern, according to Congress, is that the new rules are an attempt by Centre officials to arm themselves with “humongous, vast powers” and bypass Parliament. The Party’s spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi assures that nobody is suggesting that the field should remain unregulated. Nevertheless, the new guidelines will require much “wisdom and restraint” by the bureaucrats who exercise them in order to avoid endangering freedom of speech and creativity. Such restraint has not been shown by the Government in other sectors so far, he noted.

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