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New IT Rules: ‘The grievance panel is to strengthen mechanisms and not target anyone’

Amid concerns about the government getting a central role in manning social media content as prescribed in the new IT Rules, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, said the structure and role of the Grievance Appellate Committees (GACs) will be such as to strengthen grievance mechanism not to target anyone.

“We want GAC to be an important institution in the coming days for Internet and intermediaries we will come back and present the organisational structure, and the workings of the GAC very shortly. We will make an announcement about its structure, constitution, scope, and terms of reference,” the Minister said.

He said the formation of three-member GACs was necessitated by lakhs of messages from citizens where social media firms did not respond to grievances despite repeated complaints.

The government will start with one or two GACs, he said but added that government is not interested in playing the role of ombudsman. “It is a responsibility we are taking reluctantly because the grievance mechanism is not functioning properly,” the IT Minister said, adding that the idea is not to target any company or intermediary or make things difficult for them. The government sees the Internet and online safety as a shared responsibility of all.

On asked whether penalties will be imposed on those not complying, Chandrasekhar said the government will not like to bring “punitive actions” at this stage but warned that if the situation demands in future, it will be considered.

The Minister said the latest amendment of IT rules will put more definite due diligence obligations on social media companies to ensure that no unlawful content or misinformation is posted on their platforms.

Discourage casual approach

He also noted the government hopes that the formation of the GAC will discourage social media platforms from continuing with their “casual” and “tokenism” approach to address user grievances properly. He also added that the window of 72 hours of removing any “misinformation” should come down.

“Frankly, I am of the opinion that 72 hours is too long (for responding to a particular content)…it was 24 hours during consultations, but it was widely felt that this is early days so let’s keep it to 72 hours, and then progressively, as the platforms and intermediaries gain the capacity and capability, we will create a shorter window,” Chandrasekhar said.

The government on Friday, through a gazette notification, tightened IT rules, paving the way for the setting up of grievance appellate panels, which will settle issues that users may have against the way social media platforms initially addressed their complaints regarding content and other matters.

Analysts reaction

According to analysts, not only will the GAC have the power to reinstate posts but also remove posts based on user grievances. Legally, this gives the government the indirect power to censor material they would not be able to do directly in a manner consistent with the law and Constitution.

“The government, through section 69A, already had the unilateral power to order the censorship of online material that ostensibly violates the law. Through the appointment of a GAC, the government has further empowered itself to have the final say on what appears and does not appear online. Not only will the GAC have the power to reinstate posts, but also remove posts based on user grievances,” Gurshabad Grover, a technologist and legal researcher based in Bengaluru, said.

He said this power, granted through delegated legislation, also exceeds the scope of the parent Information Technology Act.

“The rules are also vague in that they do not state the principles by which the GAC will operate. It’s unclear whether the GAC will choose to reinstate posts/ accounts by considering legal standards of speech in India, or by the stated content moderation policy of social media platforms,” Grover added.

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