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Indian government’s new IT laws to disrupt social media platforms

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Twitter recently took the Indian government to court after it threatened the social media giant with severe consequences for failing to comply with the government’s dictate on content moderation on the platform. In fact, Twitter and the Indian government have been fighting something of a battle for over a year now.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has written numerous letters to Twitter asking the social media giant to remove content that “threatens state security”.

This falls under the Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act), which serves as the de facto framework for digital governance in India. However, the existing laws are outdated and have no teeth today. The government changed the law in 2009 to follow the evolution of the landscape; however, often it turns out to be insufficient. For some time, the Indian government has been planning to roll out the Digital India Act, which will replace the IT Act.

Earlier this year, in April, Minister of State for Electronics and Computing Rajeev Chandrasekhar revealed that the government would soon roll out the new law. “In the internet realm, 22 years is almost four or five centuries,” Chandrasekhar said.

So what could the new computer laws mean for Twitter and others?

Number of Twitter users by country in January 2022 (in millions)

Digital India Act

The IT Act 2000 oversees almost every facet of online business. When the laws were first introduced, social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter did not exist. Technologies such as AI and ML were not as famous as they are today.

However, a lot has changed in the past 22 years. Rapid technological changes with the advent of AI and ML have made it extremely important for the regulatory framework to be more specific and efficient.

So, what should we expect from the Digital India Act? “There seems to be an indication that the current framing is taking an ‘evil-centric approach’ based on statements by the Minister of State at various times and multiple interviews where they have mentioned that they are going to look at this from a point of view. from the perspective of evil,” said Prateek Waghre, director of policy at the Internet Freedom Foundation.

“What is important to understand is that even if the government says it wants to take this approach, it is not clear to anyone outside of government. There was no real consultation on this. There was no position paper or white paper,” he added.

There is a standard tension in the world in terms of regulating technology companies such as Twitter or Google because they accumulate a significant amount of data. “At a fundamental level, we are not yet at the point where we fully understand how this affects society in different ways. There’s a lot of storytelling, but there’s not necessarily a lot of research in the Indian context, really investigating and assessing its impact on our society in general,” Waghre said.

Twitter’s feud with the Indian government

Over the years, MeitY has reportedly asked Twitter to either comply with its advice or waive its “intermediary status.” The San Francisco-based company filed a writ petition in the Karnataka High Court. The government has asked Twitter to block 1,474 accounts and 175 tweets between February 2021 and 2022. Much of the content the government wants removed relates to farmer protests. In the same context, Twitter’s office was also raided last year by Delhi police.

Shortly after news broke of Twitter knocking on court doors, Chandrasekhar tweeted, “In India everyone including foreign internet intermediaries/platforms have a right to a court and judicial review. But equally, all intermediaries/platforms operating here have an unambiguous obligation to comply with our laws and rules.

Even though the number of users on Twitter is relatively small compared to Facebook or Whatsapp, the importance of Twitter lies in serving a greater digital media ecology. Political leaders and government bodies often use Twitter to make statements. Moreover, the platform is used by a large number of journalists to announce the news.

“Consistent with our principles of protecting protected speech and free expression, we have taken no action on accounts made up of media entities, journalists, activists and politicians. To do so, in our view, would violate their fundamental right to freedom of expression under Indian law. [the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology] of our enforcement actions”, Twitter said in response to last year’s letters.

Despite the ongoing fight with Twitter, the government has repeatedly said it is open to suggestions from big tech platforms for an effective self-regulatory appeal mechanism to resolve grievances raised by social media users.

The outcome of Twitter’s challenge could prove pivotal as it will decide how power is wielded under current IT laws, and it could also have implications for the new Digital India Act, although ideally, it shouldn’t be.

Government to make Twitter pay for news

The government could soon make tech giants pay for content posted on their platforms. This would be good news for the media, and the tech giants would be required to pay them a share of the revenue they earn from publishing the media’s original content.

It has been reported that the government is working on a new regulatory intervention, which could force Twitter and other tech giants such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to pay Indian newspapers and digital news publishers a share of the revenue. harvested. using their original content.

In February, Australia passed the News Media Bargaining Code, which essentially encourages tech companies to pay news companies for their content. The News Media Code of Negotiation is the result of a long battle between social media companies and the Australian government.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new legislation is a result of big tech assuming they are bigger than governments and the rules don’t apply to them.

Earlier this year Alphabet, Google’s parent company, signed deals to pay more than 300 publishers in the EU for their news.

Transparent algorithms

The algorithms of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube decide what content you consume. Algorithms have become powerful enough to even influence elections. For example, in 2020, a Facebook executive revealed that the advertising campaign on the platform assistance Donald Trump wins the US election.

There are growing calls for social media companies to be regulated and their algorithms to be open sourced, and rightly so. With the new legislation to be introduced, the Indian government could possibly return these platforms to explain their algorithm. In the case of India, last year the government launched an investigation into Facebook’s algorithmic recommendations after revelations made by whistleblower Frances Haugen.

“Overall, there was a concession on transparency and the need for algorithmic audits. And I think the law could mandate that,” Waghre said. However, that’s much easier said than done. There’s a reason why after four or five years or more of talking about algorithmic comparability or auditing, we’re still not 100% sure how it would work.

“But it is also important that we look at global conditions. There’s been some tempting talk about it, but we haven’t really seen it in practice anywhere. Because in some cases there is a reluctance on the part of companies to also make all this information public and easily accessible,” Waghre added.

However, a lot of progress has been made in this regard in different parts of the world. More recently, the European Parliament recently voted in favor of the Digital Services Act (DSA). In doing so, the EU has become the first jurisdiction in the world to set a global standard for regulating the digital space. The new legislation could force these companies to share their algorithm not only with regulators, but also with users.

DSA recalls the strict General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law in force in the EU. The data protection law adopted by the EU has become a model for similar laws in countries such as Turkey, Kenya, South Korea, Mauritius, South Africa, Japan, Brazil and Argentina.

If the rules discussed above come to fruition, it could lead to a major overhaul of how social media works in the country and how users consume content. The Indian government should find a balance so as not to trample the freedom of expression of the ordinary person.


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