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Social media platforms can no longer be given special rights over content

Yesterday, rules that aim to limit the nature of content that social media platforms such as Facebook can allow came into force. These rules, Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Media Ethics Code) Rules, were notified by the government in February. The key provisions are that a platform shall not allow itself to be used as a tool to violate any law in force, or undermine India’s sovereignty and carry something obviously false.

This development shouldn’t be seen in isolation. What’s happening in India is part of a global trend. In the internet’s nascent stage, platforms were given immunity from liability by the US for content posted by users. This law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, provided a global template and opened up space for contemporary tech giants. In other words, the playing field was deliberately kept uneven between mainstream media and social media, allowing the latter to gobble up the former’s space and hurting credible journalism and news dissemination.

Social media platforms are hugely influential today, but still wish to function within a legislative framework of rights without responsibilities. This is no longer tenable. Tech giants are under pressure even in the US where the relevance of Section 230 is being questioned by lawmakers. Content moderation already takes place using sophisticated technology. It’s clear that means are not the issue. The era of privileges without responsibilities and of uneven playing fields is over. For its part, the government too needs to step into the modern era by liberalising laws on content, equally for both mainstream and social media. For a start, senseless colonial era laws on sedition must be repealed forthwith. The Delhi police swoop on Twitter offices in India, after the latter exercised its editorial discretion by tagging some tweets by governing party members, sends exactly the wrong message in this regard.



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This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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