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Transparency needed in content moderation rules of social media firms, UN rapporteur agrees

A joint declaration lays down several guidelines for social media companies to remember while formulating their rules.

“Social media companies should ensure that their content moderation rules reflect international human rights standards including the importance of inclusive debate about matters of public interest, and elaborate clearly when, how and what measures may be taken against content posted by politicians and public officials,” read the joint declaration on politicians and public officials, and freedom of expression by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of Freedom of Opinion and Expression.

The declaration includes a set of recommendations for various stakeholders, including social media companies, responsible for upholding freedom of expression in public discourse.

UN’s Special Rapporteur Irene Khan expressed concern at the “growing incidence of online hate speech, disinformation and dangerous rhetoric against media, human rights defenders and groups at risk of discrimination, which chills freedom of expression, thereby reducing the diversity of information and ideas in society”.

The UN’s timely reminder may impact how countries draft laws protecting freedom of expression and what kind of steps  social media companies can take to address political speech promoting disinformation.

What were the other recommendations for social media companies?

The declaration lays down several guidelines for companies to remember while formulating their rules:

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On political advertisements 

Social media companies must indicate in no uncertain terms whether political advertisements will be published on their platforms. The rules governing these ads must be “clear, fair and non-discriminatory”. 

  • Political advertisements have to be labelled separately and require public disclosure of who paid for advertisements, how they operate, and who is targeted by them and why.
  • They should be stored in an archive accessible publicly.
  • Users should be able to opt out of being targeted by political advertising or having their personal data used for honing targeting of political advertisements.

On content moderation 

The document said that there has to be transparency in companies’ content moderation rules, systems and practices, especially when content related to public interest is involved. These rules should “respect basic due process principles, including by providing independent dispute resolution options, ideally overseen by independent multi-stakeholder bodies”. 

It also urged that the systems must be mindful of local languages, traditions and culture. They have to be drafted keeping in mind the size and market dominance of these companies. 

What should the State and the media keep in mind? 

The declaration advised that:

  • States should pass laws requiring media outlets, telecom operators and online intermediaries to be transparent about their ownership and sources of funding, especially if they are owned by political parties or politicians.
  • Media outlets must subject themselves to complaints systems, whether of a self-regulatory, co-regulatory or statutory nature, which are accessible to the public and which set minimum professional standards for accuracy in news and current affairs reporting, respect for diversity and avoiding coverage that promotes intolerance.

It remains to be seen whether India pays heed to these directives given that the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, pave the way for alteration of how digital news publishers operate and undermine the freedom of press in the country, the Editors of Guild of India (EGI) had said in a letter to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

UN Special Rapporteurs’ response to IT Rules

In a letter to the Indian government sent a few months ago, the UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression, privacy and right of the peaceful assembly had said that the IT Rules 2021 “do not appear to meet the requirements of international law and standards related to the rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression.”

The Rules put in place sweeping regulations on social media companies, news websites, and streaming services. The rapporteurs expressed “serious concern that some parts of their due diligence obligations may result in the limiting or infringement of a wide range of human rights.”

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