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3 grievance appellate panels to handle social media users’ complaints

The government is considering three grievance appellate committees (GACs) to look into complaints by users against decisions of social media platforms, and consultations on various modalities of the panels will start in January, IT ministry sources said.

IT rules had been strengthened in October to pave the way for formation of the Centre-appointed panels to settle often-ignored user grievances against the way social media platforms addressed their complaints regarding content and other matters.

Put simply, these panels will be able to review content moderation decisions by social media companies like Meta and Twitter, and can overrule decisions of the big tech firms on takedown or blocking requests. The government had said the move was necessitated due to the “casual” and “tokenism” approach of digital platforms towards user complaints.

Sources told PTI there will be three grievance appellate panels which will be assigned different types of appeals based on the categories of harmful content mentioned in the recently-amended IT rules. Broadly, these appeals could be around complaints regarding sexually explicit content, misinformation, or religious incitement.

The government has, in the new rules, added objectionable religious content (with intent to incite violence) alongside pornography, trademark infringements, fake information and something that could be a threat to sovereignty of the nation, as content that users can flag to social media platforms. Social media platforms’ decisions on such complaints can be challenged in the grievance committees.

IT ministry sources said that appeals pertaining to areas other than those listed out in the amended IT rules will be directed to the relevant authority or tribunal. In such cases, the GACs will act as a signpost, redirecting the complaints to the authority and tribunal concerned, while informing the complainant that their grievance has been forwarded to the relevant agency.

Further, the structure of the grievance appellate committees, design and functions, and how they deal with appeals — all such nuances will be placed for stakeholder consultation by early January.

Sources said while the IT ministry has time and again told social media companies that it is open to industry proposing an effective self-regulatory model and, in fact, still remains open to the option, in the interim GACs will be put in place. If the industry can, indeed, propose a better solution, the IT ministry is open to considering the same, sources said.

Discontent has been brewing over alleged arbitrary acts of social media platforms on flagged content, or intermediaries not responding fast enough to user grievances. The latest move will arm the users with a grievance appeal mechanism in the form of appellate committees that will look into complaints filed by individuals against decisions of grievance officers of social media platforms.

Notably, the newly-amended IT rules also impose a legal obligation on social media companies to take all out efforts to prevent barred content and misinformation, and the government has made it clear that platforms such as Twitter and Facebook operating in India will have to abide by local laws and constitutional rights of Indian users.

In October, Minister of State for IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar, while elaborating on the changes to IT rules, had pointed out that lakhs of messages around unresolved user complaints reflected the “broken” grievance redressal mechanism being offered by platforms.

The minister had asserted that while the government will partner with social media companies towards common goal of ensuring Internet remains open, safe and trusted for Indians, it will not hesitate to act, crackdown, where public interest is compromised. PTI

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