The law will apply only to India as the social media sites operate across the globe and hate to be pinned down by laws of any one country
By notifying stringent changes to the Information Technology Rules of 2021, the Government of India has given itself wide ranging powers to control contentious content on the Internet. Five-member grievance appellate committees, to be set up within three months, will be dominated by government nominees. The control of official India over the social media giants will be near total from now as the committees will be free to decide on suspended accounts, block or remove user accounts and order Internet sites to take down content.
The law will, of course, apply only to India as the social media giant sites operate across the globe and hate to be pinned down by the laws of any one country. The sites will be facing total regulatory control in India rather than just the heat they used to face whenever free speech was given reign irresponsibly. Content moderation and regulation had been far too lax on most popular sites like Twitter, Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, Google’s YouTube, etc., which is why a measure of control has been deemed necessary, and not only in India.
The point is whether India is now assuming draconian powers to rein in the social media giants that have been allowing a free run to opinions of all hues and rants by anyone with so much as an anonymous account on sites. The irony is inescapable as the social media firms themselves are beset by a huge financial downturn that is in proportion to the headwinds faced by the global economy as such.
At this complex moment in the history of the Internet and its social media sites, Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and free speech absolutist, has taken control of Twitter, which he bought out in a $44 bn deal. Having thought of acquiring the microblogging platform as a commitment to unfettered free speech, the businessman is now beginning to believe a level of moderation would be required to retain advertisers who might not splurge their dollars if Twitter were to descend to a “hellscape” featuring the abuse of freedoms and the right to hold opinions.
Large sections of users, particularly of the political Right, might like to see Donald Trump, the messiah of fake news and misinformation, back on the platform though he is sticking to his “Truth Social” for now. While his case would be the most extreme one of cynical exploitation of the social media that led to his being excluded from Twitter on the strength of a brave decision taken by a couple of Indian-origin executives, there is no denying the enormous negativity generated by lack of content moderation on the premise or promise of absolute free speech, and not only at the time of US or Indian elections.
As a former head of public policy at Twitter put it, “Even the Wild West needs a sheriff, both for ensuring the safety of citizens but also for enhancing the prospects of commerce.” He may have votaries in the rulers of India who have long resented the embarrassment caused by points of view opposed to their own. But it is the toxic content and misinformation that need to be tightly regulated, towards which the government seems happy to wield an axe for establishing control whereas content moderation and grievance redress should define the path to the future of social media.