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IT Rules 2021: MeitY sticks to its guns, pushes for GAC for social media companies

The government is likely to go ahead with a Grievance Redressal Committee (GAC) for social media companies despite objections

What’s the news: The central government intends to push for government-backed Grievance Appellate Committee (GAC) for major social media companies in case of content-related complaints, reported the Business Standard.

As per an official, self-regulatory bodies of significant social media intermediaries (SSMIs) will have to work on the same mechanism as the GAC. In June, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) proposed changes to the IT Rules 2021. One of these changes was the creation of a new GAC that could override the decisions of resident grievance officers that SSMIs are required to appoint as per IT Rules 2021.

Why it matters: The government argued that the new grievance redressal mechanism will compel intermediaries to respect the constitutional rights of citizens. However, industry bodies and groups like the Internet Freedom Foundation and others warned that the GAC can work like a ‘digital gag’ making the Centre, the arbiter of permissible speech on the internet. IFF sent these and other comments regarding the changes in July. However, it seems the government plans to go ahead with the GAC.

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SSMIs raise concerns about GAC: Along with IFF, the SSMIs too have raised concerns about the GAC as per the report by Business Standard. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, MeitY Minister of State, said the government was open to the idea of self-regulating grievance redressals by social media companies. This was following inputs to the Ministry from intermediaries based abroad.

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As per the report, Chandrasekhar said questions on the inclusiveness of the self-regulatory body had prompted the government to go ahead with the GAC. However, it clarified that self-regulatory organisation (SRO) can only cover a few social media companies working from outside India. This means that the SRO can only co-exist only with the GAC model. On the flip side, the GAC can function without the SRO.

In another media interaction, the Ministry said there would be multiple GACs to deal with user appeals against the decisions made by grievance officers of intermediaries.

Centre flip-flops on committing to SROs: Although the government appears to stand firmly with the creation of the GAC recently, the Ministry has had some dizzying changes of heart on this topic. Back in June, the MeitY pushed for the creation of the GAC but by June 23, it announced it was open to the idea of an SRO instead of a government-backed committee, said Business Standard. Yet, now the Ministry says that the SRO cannot exist. This creates confusion in terms of which grievance redressal mechanism, the consumers can avail.

On August 15, Chandrasekhar told the Indian Express that the government discouraged the SROs from being dominated by the big companies. The self-governing body would include a senior retired Supreme Court or High Court judge and social media executives among other people. Instead, it repeated that the government “could move to” an SRO later even if it goes ahead with the plans for the GAC.

IFF opposes GAC and SRO: While the GAC is criticised for government censorship on social media platforms, the IFF in its comments also opposed the creation of an industry-wide self-regulatory body. It argued that the latter will influence SSMIs to establish extra caution and discretion for politically controversial content, ultimately resulting in self-censorship.

As an example, it referred to how multiple shows on on-demand video streaming OTT platforms were censored due to the IT Rules, 2021.

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“Any such model of regulation will likely have a substantial impact on citizens’ digital rights, result in economic harm, and also negatively impact freedom of speech and expression, and access to information,” said IFF.

ITfC supports GAC: Meanwhile, IT For Change (ITfC), a Bengaluru-based think tank, voiced its full support for the GAC. It argued that the mechanism is a necessity considering several instances where grievance officers did not adequately address user grievances. However, taking a step further, it asked that the GAC be given ‘quasi judicial’ powers to ensure its effectiveness.

This story was updated at 11:30 AM on August 16 for more context.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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