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Grievance appellate committee mechanism for social media complaints in offing

The government will set up one or more centrally appointed Grievance Appellate Committees (GACs) within three months of the notification of amendments to the Information Technology (IT) Rules of 2021 under the IT Act, as per the final draft of the amended rules reviewed. The idea behind setting up the committees is to give users of social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter recourse–other than approaching the courts–to settle complaints.

The final draft of the proposed changes to the IT Rules of 2021, which were first released for public consultation in June, is likely to be notified in the next few days. The final rules also prescribe shorter timelines of 24 hours for acting upon sensitive content, along with instructing intermediaries to “respect all the rights accorded to the citizens under the constitution, including in the Articles 14, 19 and 21.” There is also some relief for platforms on conducting “due diligence” on user-generated content.

As per the provisions contained in the final draft, a three-person GAC will consist of a chairperson and two whole-time members appointed by the central government. Of the three, one will be ex-officio, while the other two will be independent members.

Any person who is aggrieved by a decision of the grievance officer of an intermediary can, within a period of 30 days, appeal against the decision, as per the provisions of the draft.

September 27 that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) had decided to go ahead with its contentious proposal to appoint multiple GACs despite industry lobbying for a self-regulatory body.

India is the largest market in terms of users for almost all social media platforms. However, the government is of the view that the platforms do not act on user grievances in a timely manner, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Companies had opposed the setting up of government-backed GACs, questioning the independence of such forums and citing concerns over freedom of speech. While the government had been asking industry to come up with a self-regulatory model, a lack of consensus among key platforms on a framework scuttled that effort.

The GACs will, the rules propose, endeavour to resolve appeals within 30 days. Further, the committees have also been given the liberty to seek assistance from any person or persons having the requisite qualifications, experience and expertise in the subject.

The draft also proposes that the entire GAC process, from the filing of appeals to their disposal, will be completely digital.

“Every order passed by the Grievance Appellate Committee shall be complied with by the intermediary concerned and a report to that effect shall be uploaded on its website,” the draft proposes.

Social media intermediaries, including Meta and Twitter had, under the aegis of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), proposed a seven-member self-regulatory committee, led either by an eminent jurist or industry senior, to handle appeals by Indian users over content and takedown directives.

That proposal, however, was not finalised after the intermediaries differed on the composition, structure and membership of the self-regulatory body, which in turn gave the government a free hand on GACs.

Though the ministry has not softened its stance on centrally appointed GACs, there is something of a relief for social media intermediaries.

In the latest draft of the proposed changes to the IT Rules, the IT ministry has said that social media intermediaries shall make “reasonable efforts” to inform their users that they cannot “host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, store, update or share any information” that is obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, invaded others privacy or violates some other laws of the country, among others.

This stance is a deviation from the earlier one, where the onus of informing the user lay squarely with the social media intermediaries.

Similarly, the final draft of the amended rules also dilutes the responsibility of social media intermediaries to mandatorily ensure due diligence, privacy and transparency.

The IT ministry has, in the latest draft, said that social media intermediaries will “take all reasonable measures” to ensure their services are accessible to all users and that there would be a “reasonable expectation” of due diligence, privacy and transparency by them.

The final draft of proposed changes to the IT Rules of 2021 – first released in June this year- has also remained firm on the timelines for social media intermediaries to act on user complaints.

As per the draft, social media intermediaries must acknowledge a complaint within 24 hours and resolve it within 15 days of receipt. If the content is sensitive in nature, the social media intermediary must ensure that the information or link is “acted upon as expeditiously as possible” and that the grievance is resolved within 72 hours of the complaint being received.

The IT Rules of 2021 mandated that while content which is asked to be taken down following a court order should be removed within 36 hours, those that involve nudity or violate an individual’s privacy have to be taken down within 24 hours.

The IT Rules, which were first released in February 2021, came into force in May that year. In June this year, the government proposed certain changes after having observed that they lacked in certain areas such as a proper and effective user grievance redressal and a content regulation mechanism. PTI

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