Govt panel on social media: Experts sceptical of efficacy

Microblogging site Twitter said it had received 755 complaints from users in India through its grievance redressal mechanisms from October 26 to November 25, 2022. It has banned 45,589 accounts.
Image used for representative purposes only.
Image used for representative purposes only.

BENGALURU: IT industry experts are sceptical about the recently constituted Grievance Appellate Committees (GACs) over their efficacy to address users’ grievances against social media intermediaries given the huge number of complaints these platforms receive. 

Experts feel as there are a huge number of grievances against these platforms, GACs could find it difficult to handle the workload. They say with the increased workloads, the law has a long way to go.
The Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) announced earlier this week formation of the GACs, which, according to the ministry, would give more digital rights to citizens.

The committee, which was set up in January, will address the grievances of users on issues left unaddressed by social media intermediaries. In other words, if a user is dissatisfied with the redressal committees of any social media platform such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, one can appeal to the government-appointed GACs.

There are three GACs and three members in each panel.  An aggrieved customer can file complaints through the GAC digital platform, wherein the entire appeal process will be done online. The committees will have to address the users’ appeal within 30 days.

“The digital platform, Grievance Appellate Committee (GAC), is a powerful tool for ensuring accountability of platforms to their users,” Union Minister of State for IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar said after the formation of the appellate body. The law came into effect on March 1, 2023. The government calls it a citizen-centric reform, which will give more digital rights to the citizens. However, industry experts have some reservations about it. A few have raised concern over how GACs will deal with the huge number of complaints, while others said this framework could make the government an arbiter of permissible speech on the Internet.

Rule and its purpose
Established under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (IT Rules), the government said the purpose of the law is to ensure a safe and trusted and accountable Internet for Indian users.

The IT rules 2021 mandates social media giants to have a grievance officer to address content-related issues of users. According to the government, GACs were constituted as social media platforms have failed to deal with users’ concerns. 

“The need for the creation of the GACs was due to a large number of grievances being left unaddressed or unsatisfactorily addressed by Internet Intermediaries,” said the IT ministry in a press note.
It further said the IT rules 2021 provide for creating avenues for grievance redressal apart from the courts and ensure that the Constitutional rights of Indian citizens are not contravened by any big-tech platforms by ensuring new accountability standards for significant social media intermediaries (SSMIs).

The government notified the rule in October 2022. As per the rule, each Grievance Appellate Committee consists of a Chairperson and two whole-time members appointed by the central government, of which one should be a member ex-officio and two should be independent members.

The first committee will be led by the Ministry of Home Affairs and will deal with complaints on illegal or criminal activities, the second committee will be under the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and will handle misinformation or fake content and the third committee will take care of copyright issues.

The GACs will ensure that an appeal is resolved within 30 calendar days from the date of receiving of the appeal. “Every order passed by the Grievance Appellate Committee should be complied with by the intermediary concerned and a report to that effect should be uploaded on its website,” said the government.

A long way to go 
The law mandates social media companies to remove any content if a GAC asks them to do so. However, it is easier said than done, especially in a country like India where the number of complaints is very high. According to the DataReportal website, India was home to 467 million social media users as of January 2023, equating to 32.8% of the country’s total population. 

According to the monthly report in compliance with the new IT rules, 2021, microblogging site Twitter said it had received 755 complaints from users in India through its grievance redressal mechanisms from October 26 to November 25, 2022. It has banned 45,589 accounts.

Similarly, Meta Inc removed 22.9 million posts, including photos, videos and comments in India across both its platforms, Facebook and Instagram, in November 2022. WhatsApp banned 3.72 million bad accounts between November 1 and November 30. Therefore, given the sheer number of industry experts are sceptical about whether the portal or GACs will be able to deal with the increased workloads.

 “Given the volume of appeals and in many instances the complexity of the content in question, one must ask whether three committees consisting of only three members (in each panel) will be able to operate at such scale,” said Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), which conducts advocacy on digital rights and liberties.

Namita Viswanath, Partner, IndusLaw, is of the view that given the GACs are well-rounded in terms of representation; the risk of the executive wing of the government having complete control over them appears to be low.  However, she is still in favour of the complete independence of any appellate body established in India. “In terms of best practices, the ideal scenario would be to ensure complete independence of any appellate body such as the GACs, while also balancing the government’s objective behind creating such a body,” said Viswanath.

She also raised concern over periodic reviews of the GACs and how appeals to be resolved by the GACs have not been made public yet. “Accordingly, there could be a risk of the GACs becoming an instrument for the government to curb any online speech that they disagree with. Thus, the manner in which appeals are decided will determine whether the GACs take decisions, which may be perceived as being more favourable to the government,” said Viswanath.

She further said this risk is especially imminent given that under the IT rules, intermediaries are required to comply with the GACs’ decisions and non-compliance carries the risk of intermediaries losing their safe harbour protection under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

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