A code of ethics and a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism are applicable to news publishers, Over The Top (OTT) entertainment platforms and digital media encompassing the social media that is used by millions of Indians. The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 have recycled many existing provisions with the sole aim of establishing stringent government control over the giants of the Big Tech world. The logic of placing the digital news media in the same basket as a social gossip platform and entertainment channel is fundamentally flawed.
Official India is under pressure like never before. The country’s international image has been hit hard in the arrest of Disha Ravi after India chose to respond to the likes of pop singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg. The response is seen now in the new moves to rein in the digital world, which fall just short of the notorious pre-publication censorship attempted during the Emergency in 1975. As a hypersensitive nation that makes the most requests to digital media sites to take down content, India will be judged by its intent in its actions after empowering itself formally.
The second fundamental flaw in this hotchpotch approach, which mercifully falls short of creating a Great Firewall type of censorship as in China’s total control over its internet ecosystem, is that compliance regulations are being added to existing provisions even as a bipartisan Parliamentary panel is studying the subject in detail after inviting representatives of Big Tech to depose before it. The impatience is owed to the image hits and subsequent crude retaliatory responses by the bureaucracy in intimidating the media and criminalising dissent. The sum total of this effort at damage control is the casting of a huge shadow on media freedom in the guise of averting irresponsible comment on social media by individuals.
There is little to fault the framing of compliance requirements being thrust upon a social media that has till now gone scot-free while monetising hate and doing little to keep out fake news. They cannot host all manner of irresponsible comment in the guise of freedom of speech either. They may have armed the common man with a platform to vent out his angst, but they are not a substitute for organised news presentation. Nor can news media be clubbed with social media under one umbrella. News content is subject to various rules and regulations already and additional compliance requirements will only burden them while threatening their established news streaming procedures through oversight committees filled with bureaucrats.
The sensitivities of the bureaucracy or the ruling party alone cannot be the sole criterion for reining in the social media. In the normal course, the government should have prepared legislation for data protection and privacy issues rather than look at it in the narrow perspective of controlling opinion being expressed on social media even as certain elements tyrannise the net through vicious online trolling. The streaming media like OTT platforms also host creativity in avant-garde content and it’s moot whether government servants can stand in judgment on such matters as the art of cinema. In short, these rules are best abandoned and legislation prepared with greater thought.