Media platforms

Data protection panel calls for more accountability for social media platforms

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A parliamentary panel deliberating on the personal data protection bill recommended that social media companies be regulated as a publisher and not an intermediary – effectively proposing to end the legal immunity they enjoy over content from third party hosted on their platform, people familiar with the matter said.

Intermediaries, like social media companies, operate under what is called a ‘safe harbor’, which essentially means that they cannot be held responsible for the content that users post on their platform. as long as companies follow certain due diligence guidelines such as complying with government content takedowns. requests, as prescribed in Section 69A of the Indian Information Technology Act.

Publishers, like newspapers and news sites, on the other hand, are responsible for the content they publish because it does not involve external contributions or unchecked user content. The idea is that they have direct control over what is printed or published on their platform, and therefore do not or need safe haven protection for the content. This is the fundamental difference between an intermediary and a publisher.

It should be mentioned that the Safe Harbor is an accepted standard in the democratic world and is a crucial piece of legislation which, while protecting platforms from unwanted prosecution, also ensures that users can express themselves freely on these platforms. It is considered a crucial principle of the right to freedom of expression, in addition to allowing these platforms to develop to the giant scale they have, providing a condition for universal operation.

It also explains why most of the dominant platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram have chosen to stay outside of China, which refuses to allow such protection or general operations.

The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) in 2019 which was tasked with presenting a report on its recommendations on the various provisions of the bill. A provisional version of the report has been drawn up, Coach has learned.

“In this draft report, the committee recommended creating a mechanism to hold social media platforms accountable for ‘unverified content’ on their platforms,” ​​said a person with direct knowledge of the report’s content. Coach on condition of anonymity since the report is currently confidential.

“After the verification request is submitted with the necessary documents, social media intermediaries must compulsorily verify the account and they must be held accountable for the dissemination of content by unaudited accounts,” said the draft report which was read at Coach States.

However, it is not clear why a panel dealing with a proposed data protection law is making recommendations on the regulation of social media intermediaries.

While removing the safe harbor condition seems almost impossible to execute given the volume of content involved in large social media platforms, the only other alternative that has been offered so far is to verify each individual user, has also been ignored so far for the sheer KYC spiral it could send most of these platforms to.

Removing the Safe Harbor protection would make it impossible for platforms like Facebook and Twitter to function in the country without changing the very nature of those platforms. Facebook declined to comment on our requests, Twitter did not respond to an immediate request for comment.

Although this is still a recommendation made by the JPC in a draft report, it marks a significant change from the general safety standards accepted around the world, including India.

The 2015 Shreya Singhal ruling, considered a landmark Supreme Court ruling for free speech, made it clear that online intermediaries, such as social media platforms, are only required to remove content after they have received an order from a court or government authority.

However, several recent events have prompted governments around the world to rethink the Safe Harbor. Recent revelations from Facebook whistleblowers about how the platform’s algorithms would have allowed hate speech to flourish with little to no business consequences have reignited the debate over whether the Safe Harbor should. be restricted to some extent and whether companies should be held more accountable.

However, this is a difficult balancing act. As governments pressure social media companies to regulate speech, this in turn increases the propensity of platforms to severely attack legitimate free speech, often stifling important and critical voices. in the process.

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