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Govt says it hasn’t studied impact of social media regulation on freedom of speech

The Union Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Information & Broadcasting and Heavy Industries and Public Enterprise, Shri Prakash Javadekar and the Union Minister for Law & Justice, Communications and Electronics & Information Technology, Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad briefing the media on Cabinet Decisions, in New Delhi on March 21, 2020.

The Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology stated in Parliament on Wednesday that it has not studied the impact on freedom of speech that government control on social media would have. The recently notified Intermediary Rules, to recap, require social media platforms to take down content that is flagged to them in a matter of hours, and develop what the government calls a “robust grievance redressal system”. Notably, the government says, “Presently, there is no proposal with Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to appoint a regulator for social media.” The government was responding to a query by Bastar Indian National Congress Lok Sabha MP Deepak Baij.

The Rules have raised concerns around free speech, especially that social media companies, in a bid to evade government action, may over-comply and block posts that shouldn’t be taken down. Baij asked the government “whether the Government has conducted any study regarding the impact of Government’s control over social media vis-a-vis right to freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution and if so, the details and the outcome thereof.”

In response, the government said, “No such study is undertaken by the Government. The Government values freedom of speech and expression which is a fundamental right under article 19(1) of the Constitution. The Government welcomes criticism, dissent and also the rights of people to ask questions on social media. However, this needs to be acknowledged that the fundamental right of speech and expression under article 19(1) is also subject to reasonable restrictions under article 19(2) of the Constitution which can be imposed in the interest of security, safety and sovereignty of India, public order, friendly relations with foreign countries etc.”

Full text of question and answer

Will the Minister of ELECTRONICS AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY be pleased to state:-

(a) whether the Government proposes to appoint a regulator to make social media accountable and if so, the details thereof;

(b) the action taken by the Government against social media companies so far and the number of people whose social media accounts have been suspended during the last one year; and

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(c) whether the Government has conducted any study regarding the impact of Government’s control over social media vis-a-vis right to freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution and if so, the details and the outcome thereof?

ANSWER
MINISTER FOR ELECTRONICS AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY (SHRI RAVI SHANKAR PRASAD)

(a) and (b): The social media platforms, for the user generated content made available on their platforms, are intermediaries as defined in the Information Technology Act, 2000. Section 79 of the Act provides exemption from liability to intermediaries, provided they follow certain due diligence and are required to disable/remove unlawful content relatable to Article 19(2) of the Constitution, on being notified by appropriate government or its agency or through court order. In order to provide enhanced user safety as also accountability of social media platforms, Government has released the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 under the Act that specifies the due diligence to be followed by all the intermediaries including the social media intermediaries The social media platforms are enjoined to develop a robust grievance redressal system.

Presently, there is no proposal with Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to appoint a regulator for social media.

Under provision of section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, Government blocks unlawful and malicious online content including social media account, in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above. Under this provision, 9849 URLs/accounts/webpages, mostly on social media platforms, were blocked during the year 2020.

(c): No such study is undertaken by the Government. The Government values freedom of speech and expression which is a fundamental right under article 19(1) of the Constitution. The Government welcomes criticism, dissent and also the rights of people to ask questions on social media. However, this needs to be acknowledged that the fundamental right of speech and expression under article 19(1) is also subject to reasonable restrictions under article 19(2) of the Constitution which can be imposed in the interest of security, safety and sovereignty of India, public order, friendly relations with foreign countries etc. It is equally important that social media should not be abused or misused to defame, promote terrorism, rampant violence and compromise the dignity of women. It is for these challenges that the intermediaries are expected to remove/disable content as and when brought to the knowledge of intermediaries either through a court order or through a notice by appropriate government or its agency or when directed under section 69A of the IT Act 2000, following due process of law.

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