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Govt concerned about asymmetry between news publishers and social media platforms: IT Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar says

Chandrasekhar added that the Government was concerned about ad tech monopolies and duopolies and that the answer to this will be in the Digital India Act (DIA).

“We are concerned that there is a deep asymmetry between those who create content and those who help the content creators monetize that content,” India’s IT Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar said during the Digital News Publishers Association’s Conclave held on February 6. Chandrasekhar was addressing a question about whether India would consider implementing a revenue share system between big tech companies and news publications posting content on social media platforms. Legislation to this effect has been implemented in Canada with Google agreeing to pay news publishers a share of the ad revenue in the country.

“We don’t want the internet or the commercial, the monetization on the internet in the purview of or to be controlled by just one or two or three companies,” Chandrasekhar said. He added that the government is concerned about ad tech monopolies and duopolies and that the answer to this will be in the Digital India Act (DIA). “The Digital India Act, in its pre-consultation, laid out this as one of the issues that we were going to deal with, that we are certainly going to have to deal with,” he said, explaining that the asymmetry between big platforms and the content creation ecosystem needs to be regulated through the rules of a new legislation.

When asked to clarify whether the DIA would contain a revenue-sharing model for platforms and publishers, Chandrasekhar said that such a model would have to be talked through. “What should be the solution [to the asymmetry between players] is something that we will have to publicly consult, discuss with everybody, and then come up with a framework. Will the government prescribe revenue share? I doubt it. But certainly, [the] government can always step in and say, we will prevent the abuse of this power,” Chandrasekhar said.

How can digital publishers safeguard themselves from AI?

Chandrasekhar said that the scraping of content by generative artificial intelligence (AI) is an important existential question. He brought up the ongoing legal battle between OpenAI and the New York Times about the issue of content scraping and said that it would be a defining case on the rights of digital news platforms or anyone else creating content for public consumption.

“I’m giving you my personal point of view, I think that is not a tenable model. As I said, the basic principle is that the content creator, whether he or she has put it out there in the public or has kept it behind a paywall or some other way of safeguarding it, must have a right to whatever value comes out of the monetisation of that content is my thought as an individual, as a matter of principle. Now, how do we enshrine that, legislate that? How do we make that happen? That is the issue that we will have to discuss,” Chandrasekhar said.

How can social media platforms be stopped from shunning news?

In September last year, Meta announced that it was shutting down “Facebook news” – a dedicated tab on Facebook in the bookmarks section that spotlights news – in the UK, Germany and France. “Facebook basically now is saying, We don’t want news on our platform because it’s just too much of a headache for us,” a participant at the conclave said in this context, asking Chandrasekhar how other platforms could be discouraged from taking the same approach.

“I think these social media platforms initially encourage news and current affairs and editorial-type content because they wanted more and more users to gravitate towards these platforms. Now, when there is this robust ecosystem of influencers and content creators, they are playing pick and choose and playing God in a certain way,” Chandrasekhar said, explaining the reason behind platforms no longer being interested in hosting news content. He mentioned that in his opinion, platforms should not be allowed to deny a content creator access to distribute and monetize content just because it is troublesome for them. “They will have to give you grounds that you are unlawful or your content is violating the law. That is why we are excluding you,” he mentioned, adding that he believes this issue should be taken up by the Competition Commission of India.

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What’s the agenda for the government’s meeting with AI companies?

A participant at the event pointed out that Microsoft and OpenAI are expected to visit India this month and asked the government’s agenda for its meeting with the companies. “Our approach is that you can only offer AI that is safe and trusted in India. You can offer only models that are trained to deliver safe and trusted outputs in India. Even if you are a platform that use algo[rithm]s and not a full-blown AI model, those algo[rithm]s have to be safe and trusted,” Chandrasekhar said in response to the question. “There was an example recently of Google Bard, I think, responding that the reason there was an error in the output of that model was that it was under trial. We are making it very clear that nobody can put a physically available platform on trial. You will have to sandbox that,” he added.

Does the government differentiate between legacy news media and “santa banta” news sites?

A participant stated that news publishers are currently facing a problem wherein they do not want news to be regulated by the government but at the same time the online news space is becoming overcrowded with sites pretending to be fake news publishers (which he classified as “santa banta news.coms”) cropping up.

“I want to tell you very clearly, and this is an absolute[ly] sincere truth coming from us. The government would prefer not to be an auditor of this at all. [The] government would only like to be playing the role it traditionally plays, which is to ensure the law is enforced,” Chandrasekhar responded.  He explained that in the past several years social media platforms have developed on the back of new digital news platforms and as a result, these news platforms have the reach traditional news organizations don’t. He further mentioned that because of Section 79 of the IT Act [which exempts social media platforms from being liable for the content they host, called safe harbor], law enforcement agencies have struggled to track those posting fake news.

He said that since October 2022, there has been a move towards conditional safe harbor for platforms. This means that platforms will be given safe harbor as long as they are not hosting unlawful content. “In the last two and a half years, the conduct and the performance of platforms have significantly improved. They are themselves understanding the risk that they are undertaking today by being irresponsible,” Chandrasekhar said. “We have issued an advisory today to go into the granularity of saying that, look, you should also amend your terms of use, where a user signing up on Facebook or Twitter or Insta knows very clearly what the legal consequences are if you do CSAM [child sexual abuse material], if you do deep fakes, what the consequences are,” he added.

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