Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP Priyanka Chaturvedi has called for the formulation of guidelines to hold social media websites accountable. She has written to IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, telling him that the current legal framework under which companies like Facebook operate, which provides them with immunity on the basis of their status as intermediaries, “cannot be accepted anymore”.

Chaturvedi was writing primarily to demand an investigation into the reports of more than 80,000 fake accounts that were created to “malign” the Maharashtra state government (run by a Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance) and Mumbai police, in relation to the latter’s investigation into the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Earlier this week, Mumbai police had identified automated bots on various social media platforms that tagged with hashtags such as “#justiceforsushant”. Police commissioner Param Bir Singh said the social media campaign has been run against Mumbai police to “demoralise” them and target them with “abusive tone”.

Chaturvedi also referred to a recent University of Michigan study, which linked ruling Bharatiya Janata Party members with conspiracy theories promoting the idea of Rajput having been murdered, and not die by suicide. The study showed an important role in politicians from the BJP in promoting the “murder” theory. Although, Chaturvedi did not name BJP directly in her letter to Prasad.

On Facebook’s political bias, and lack of accountability

The Shiv Sena leader wrote of the allegations of political bias against Facebook, which were reported by the Wall Street Journal in August. The Journal had reported that Facebook chose to not take action against hate speech by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party  leaders in order to avoid the company’s business interests in India. Ankhi Das, head of the company’s public policy team in India, had opposed taking down posts by T Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana, and other “Hindu nationalist individuals” even though they were flagged as “hate speech”. Again, Chaturvedi did not name BJP directly.

Chaturvedi felt that social media companies were doing little in terms of promoting accountability for monitoring speech, which led to disturbances in the country’s peace and harmony, promotion of gender based violence and religious and casteist bigotry.

“There is an urgent need to formulate appropriate guidelines that hold social media companies accountable,” she said. She said the current legal framework allowed companies to escape oversight in two ways, both of which need to be amended:

  • Intermediary liability protections don’t take into account algorithmic bias: Chaturvedi said that social media companies are considered intermediaries under the Information Technology Act, 2020. She said that this treatment discounts the fact that the algorithms these companies use to manage their platforms “add fuel to the fire”.

    “The algorithms promote problematic and harmful content to specific regions and audiences in a way that their business frows bigger through audience engagement. The decades old argument that as intermediaries they have no responsibility cannot be accepted any more”

  • Self-regulation not cutting it: Chaturvedi said that companies are allowed to self-regulate through their own community guidelines. “This is meant to absolve the companies of any public oversight and ignore instances such as those that the [Wall Street Journal] article published by the foreign outlet has mentioned. This is also unacceptable as clearly the enforcement of these guidelines is highly questionable”

If Singapore, Germany can do it, why can’t we?

Chaturvedi told Prasad that while India was still debating about what it can do on this subject, countries like Singapore, Germany and the United States had already formulated rules to govern platforms. She said that these countries had acted on bringing transparency and accountability in how these platforms are regulated.

When asked about the implications on free speech, if social media companies were to be made liable for content they may host, Chaturvedi said it isn’t her intention to curtail free speech in any way. “But free speech cannot become an excuse for platforms to make revenue models out of it. They say “we are self regulating”, but the truth is they are doing nothing. For example, the WSJ article categortically said that even if though the posts by BJP leaders were violative of Facebook’s self regulation guidelines, the pages were not taken down.”

Chaturvedi added that Facebook needed to be more forthcoming in its biggest market in the world. Additionally, she said the Indian government too needed to be more proactive in investigating these companies. She said that if the heads of Facebook and Twitter could be called upon by the US Congress to answer questions and be investigated in an open forum, why was the Indian government hesitating even to ask them to explain themselves.

When asked if she was confident of a positive response from Prasad, who had recently written to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg accusing the company of the exact opposite (that it was censoring pro-right content), Chaturvedi told MediaNama that, “The letter to Zuckerberg was extremely political in nature and wasn’t one that suits a cabinet minister of this country. Instead of accusing, I would have preferred he told Mark Zuckerberg to come to India, and present himself at the IT Standing Committee. […] As a country with 1.3 billion people should be able to do that, which is Facebook’s largest market, it is imperative that if they wish to do business in India, they should be answerable to Indian authorities”.

Chaturvedi is not the only political leader to call for a revamp of the intermediary liability laws. Recently, BJP MP Tejasvi Surya had called for their repeal, calling safe harbour protections “unconstitutional”.

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