Social media Grievance Appellate Committees: Experts raise the alarm about the new govt notification
The three-member Grievance Appellate Committee(s) will be set in three months, a gazette notification issued by MeitY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) said
Technology experts have raised an alarm about the Union information technology ministry’s notification under which it would set up Grievance Appellate Committees (GAC), which will have control over content moderation decisions taken by social media platforms in India. Experts have said that the establishment of GACs will make bureaucrats determiners of our online free speech.
The three-member Grievance Appellate Committee(s) will be set in three months, a gazette notification issued by MeitY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) said. The setting up of the grievance committees means that if users are not satisfied with the decision of a social platform on whether to remove or moderate any content, they can now file an appeal with the government. This means GACs will have the power to reverse the social media firm’s decision.
Drawing attention to this development, the Internet Freedom Foundation stated that as GAC would hear appeals against the decisions of social media platforms to remove content or not, it will incentivise platforms to remove/suppress/label any speech unpalatable to the government, or those exerting political pressure.
What is extremely concerning is the opaque and arbitrary methods of choosing appeals for review. “Further, while non-transparent decision making by social media platforms on decisions such as "deplatforming" users is concerning, the creation of a GAC is not the right approach.” This is because creating a GAC increases government control and power.
The policy director at IFF, Prateek Waghre underscored that the GAC is not reflective of sound policymaking and is indicative of an approach to content moderation that is neither suitable nor capable of scaling to meet the many challenges in today’s information ecosystem. “It relies on decisions taken about individual pieces of content to attempt to address systemic issues that are caused by broader societal-level problems to produce ‘accountability theatre’. Aggregation of individual decisions won’t be able to address underlying problems since they are neither repeatable nor broadly applicable, given the complexities involved,” he pointed out.
The government has, in the new rules, added objectionable religious content (with intent to incite violence) alongside pornography, trademark infringements, fake information and something that could be a threat to sovereignty of the nation that users can flag to social media platforms. Their decisions on such flagging can be challenged in the grievance committees.
“We (Internet Freedom Foundation) have been voicing our deep concerns with the IT Rules 2021 since it first began the consultation process back in 2018 and since then not only have wounds to the digital rights of users remained unrepaired, but they have deepened,” asserted the Foundation.
It should be remembered that the Madras HC and Bombay HC had stayed Part III of IT Rules 2021 because they violated freedom of speech and expression by allowing a government body to censor content posted by digital news platforms. “Instead of addressing issues highlighted by Constitutional Courts, a government body can now censor content posted by users, even when Section 69A does not permit the government to do so.
Section 69A of the Information Technology Act deals with the power to issue directions for blocking public access of any information through any computer resource.
After the notification was announced, both the US-India Business Council (USIBC) and US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) raised concerns about the independence of such committees if the government controlled their formation. Both the firms represent tech giants, including Google, Meta and Twitter.