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Social Media- Taming an indispensable intruder.

Media is the self-proclaimed fourth leg of a democratic system and, supposedly, are the protectors of the rights of the citizen and voice of the common man of the country. The duty cast upon the media, print as well as digital, is to act as watchdogs of democracy and report the deviations to create mass awareness about the same. Except during the dark ages of emergency, the influence of media was predominantly evident in the social life of Indians. The information that are being published in the conventional media are either verified or originated from reliable or definite source. The said media are properly regulated and controlled by various government agencies and the reach of the said media are limited to specific jurisdictions. The information that are being publicized in those media are, though mostly agenda driven and influenced by socio-political background of the publisher, having the parenthood and it shall not feed the public with tainted information beyond an extent. Even if there are any such incidents, the Government will get enough time to arrest the same in an efficient manner and take corrective measures before it damages the social and political texture of the nation. Though the said Media had enjoyed the privilege of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution of India, the said freedom was subject to reasonable restrictions. The print and digital media were not allowed to spread unauthentic and unverified information which are highly inflammable in nature.

However, with the advent of Social Networking Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and microblogging sites such as Twitter and new age messaging mediums such as Telegram and Whatsapp, the manner of communication had taken a massive drift from the conventional style of print and digital media. Though the social media platforms are providing lot of freedom to express, the said freedom is presently unlimited and uncontrolled. Anything and everything can go ‘viral’ in those platforms and no one can verify the authenticity of the said information. As the communication speed in social media is faster than light, the Government will not get adequate time to study the matter and clarify it before the damage is done. Anti-social elements can hide behind the veil of anonymity and make any kind of derogatory comments about anybody and everybody, without a tint of authenticity and accountability. Due to the huge under-current of unverified and unqualified data flooding through the social media pages and messaging platforms, the Government is finding it difficult to clarify its stand before it creates wrong impressions in the mind of common man. Social media is a double-edged sword and it can harm the user himself, if not handled with care and expertise. We had witnessed many hashtags and proclamations without any basis and placed many wreaths on bodies of those who got lynched by the mob who had trusted those campaigns. The already limping fourth leg of democracy had got severely fractured due to the high voltage factionalism, regionalism, religionism, fascism and fanaticism predominantly prevailing in the social media and they are no more the watchdogs of democracy but are turned to be blood thirsty hounds.

So, under the current socio-political- economic scenario, it is very much important to bring accountability to the said channels of communication without putting unwarranted or blanket restrictions. In view of the same, The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 were notified on February 25, 2021.

Intermediaries are entities that store or transmit data on behalf of other persons. Intermediaries include internet or telecom service providers, online marketplaces, and social media platforms. The new rules cast the responsibility of conducting due diligence on the intermediaries and cast the duty to inform its users about rules and regulations, privacy policy, and terms and conditions for usage of its services, make them responsible and liable to block access to unlawful information within 36 hours upon an order from the Court, or the government, and to retain information collected for the registration of a user for 180 days after cancellation or withdrawal of registration.

In addition to the above, the Significant Social Media Intermediaries such as Facebook, Whatsapp and twitter are responsible for additional due diligence such as appointing a chief compliance officer to ensure compliance with the IT Act and the Rules, appointing a grievance officer residing in India, and publishing a monthly compliance report.

As per the rules, the intermediaries which provide messaging(such as Whatsapp) as a primary service must enable the identification of the first originator of the information on its platform. This originator must be disclosed if required by an order from the Court or the government. Such order will be passed for specified purposes including investigation of offences related to sovereignty and security of the state, public order, or sexual violence. No such order will be passed if less intrusive means are effective in identifying the originator of the information. The intermediary will not be required to disclose the contents of any communication. If the first originator is located outside India, the first originator of that information within India will be deemed to be the first originator. This clause will enable the Government to trace out the persons who are acting behind the veil with ill-motives and put a clamp on them before it creates more damage.

In case of emergencies, the authorised officers may examine digital media content and the Secretary, MIB may pass an interim direction for blocking of such content. The final order for blocking content will be passed only after the approval by the Inter-Departmental Committee. In case of non-approval from the Committee, the content must be unblocked.

However none of the social media platforms had adhered to the new guidelines so far, even after the expiry of the deadline given by the Government and instead they had asked for more time to comply with the guidelines. Have you wondered why they are reluctant to comply with the new guidelines? All the said social media majors are huge conglomerates having hefty valuations in financial markets. Most of these companies are valued based on the number for registered users in their platform. More users means more enterprise value. Apart from the above, the social media platforms are into ‘data mining’ business where they are selling the data to earn the major chunk of the revenue. India, being the biggest market, is a gold mine for them as far as the number of users are concerned. If the new legislations are effected, then many of the ‘fake accounts’ shall disappear overnight and leave the platforms forever in search of safe havens. For the social media giants like Facebook and Whatsapp, losing the users means losing the valuation as well as losing the free data. So obviously they will be reluctant to go for it!

Its high time to tame the intruders as no freedom is unlimited and reasonable restrictions are not illegal. Social media is an indispensable intruder in our day to day life and it is very important to handle it with care and caution. If reasonable restrictions are not in place, the limping fourth leg of democracy, will soon get amputated forever.

Bijoy P Pulipra

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