On Thursday, government introduced sweeping new rules that encompass a wide spectrum of digital content. But the way in which these rules force-fit social media, streaming entertainment, and digital news portals all under one umbrella, is untenable. News content already undertakes compliance with various standalone legislations. Plus news sites follow print and TV norms, besides the extensive self-regulation done in multiple layers between journalists and editors every day. Social media by contrast has run rogue, without accountability.
Leave alone discussing these far-reaching changes with stakeholders in digital news, government has sidestepped even a cursory parliamentary scrutiny by introducing the sweeping regulatory framework as subordinate legislation. And now, at a time when news media are already battling adverse economic and legal environments, with serious charges like sedition being levelled on frivolous grounds, a whole new set of compliance measures will bring fresh costs and dangers. For example, the oversight authority set up with government officials and suo motu powers could both encourage strong-arming by the state and trolls mounting a deluge on a selected media target, to hurt it punitively.
Government’s aim to impose accountability on social media to tackle a pandemic of fake news and hatred is sound. But it’s mainstream news platforms that have offered the strongest checks on this dangerous phenomenon, by amplifying the credible facts and information. The three-tier grievance redressal mechanism proposed in the rules is only going to put constraints on this work. It is not minimum government, maximum governance and it’ll not provide benefits to society. It’s best to drop the current rules. Instead, government can use the ongoing parliamentary exercise in fleshing out a data protection legislation to meet its objectives of regulating social media content. But most importantly, news platforms must not be clubbed with social media.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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