Freedom of Speech – Defamation, Sedition, etc.

Regulating online speech

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : NA

Mains level : Regulation of Online speech,freedom of speech,Public awareness

Online Speech

Context

  • The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) has mooted two proposals for governance of online speech government appointed grievance appellate committees (GAC) and the industry self-regulatory body (SRB) seek to preclude this contest in favour of a unilateral government and industry agenda.

What is an online speech?

  • A recorded online speech is delivered, recorded, and then uploaded to the Internet for later viewing. Examples are TED Talks and presentations in online or blended speech classes.
  • Such speech are recorded or sometimes made in real time using various social media platforms.

Online Speech

How unregulated online speech is becoming dangerous day by day?

  • Gendered disinformation and harassment campaigns: Impacting the mental health, job performance, and if and how they engage with online spaces.
  • GLAAD’s 2021 Social Media Safety Index says: 64% of LGBTQ social media users reported experiencing harassment and hate speech, including on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.
  • Contributing to communal violence: In countries like India and Sri Lanka, failure to remove and prevent the amplification of harmful content can contribute to profound offline consequences, including violence and death.

What are the proposals for the regulation of online speech?

  • Setting up Grievance appellate committees (GAC): The GACs, as per the draft issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity), will be constituted by the central government and will serve as an appellate body against decisions of various social media platforms.
  • Appointing Self-regulatory body by social Media platforms(SRB)?: As the name suggests, industries such as twitter, meta etc will appoint their own personnel and constitute the self-regulatory body to hear the grievances against the social media posts.

Online Speech

What are the Criticism over GAC and SRB?

  • Lack of substantive framework: Not only has the government not laid down a substantive policy with objectively defined contours of forbidden speech, the government wants the right to apply this highly subjective criteria on individual pieces of content and/or users.
  • Unreasonable removal of content: It is notable that the government has already arrogated this right and routinely issues take down orders (without providing rationale) to social media platforms to take down or block content with minimal pushback from platforms.
  • Serving the Governments agenda: However, the national security, public order logic of takedowns does not apply to reinstatement of content/users proactively blocked by the platforms and it is likely that an additional purpose of the GACs is to provide an institutional avenue for the ruling government machinery to get a set of aligned accounts/content reinstated instead of just takedowns.
  • Such regulations are said to be Non-democratic: It is evident that the GAC doesn’t meet even minimal standards of democratic legitimacy and should be scrapped. The industry SRB proposal too lack democratic legitimacy.
  • Profit before public interest: Platforms have repeatedly shown themselves to be driven by profit motives, which are often at odds with public interest. It is thus likely that such a platform-led body will try and maximise the interests of the industry and individual platforms as opposed to the interests of the Indian people.
  • It will increase Government’s unrestrained powers: Notwithstanding Twitter’s plea in Karnataka High Court against Centre’s “disproportionate use of power” to issue “overbroad and arbitrary” content-blocking orders, the track record of platforms in India of resisting government pressure has been very poor.
  • For example recent Twitter episode: For instance, a former safety head with Twitter reportedly told US regulators that Twitter put a government agent on its payroll under duress.
  • High Chances of Government’s pressure: The SRB may act as a rubber stamp providing false legitimacy for covert government pressure while the binding nature of SRB orders will make it easier for the government to exercise pressure on a single lever to ensure compliance across all platforms.
  • Lack of consensus in SRB: The other real possibility is that such a body will be a non-starter, wracked by internal dissensions or non-compliance and thus pave the way for the government GAC. This possibility is indicated by the divergent views of the constituent platforms.

Online Speech

What are the Suggestions?

  • Relooking the proposals: It is evident that neither of the two proposals meet the minimum standards of democratic legitimacy and need to be rethought.
  • Follow the democratic way: Given the centrality of free speech in a democracy, no government or private body can have unmitigated right to make decisions regarding the contours of acceptable speech. The argument that an elected government has earned the executive right to determine standards of speech like other policy decisions is fallacious because speech is the only democratic way to contest the government itself.
  • Least government interference: The governance of speech, including setting standards and implementation, must thus sit squarely outside the ambit of government.
  • Independent body answerable to parliament: This can be achieved through a statutory regulator answerable to Parliament.
  • Standard operating procedure to remove content: In the meantime, there has to be transparency in the manner content moderation decisions are taken, including the takedown orders issued by the government.

Conclusion

  • The current proposals are preoccupied with policing individual pieces of content whereas the impact of social media platforms on our information ecosystems is fundamental. Social media platforms now play an increasingly interventionist role in amplifying certain voices and our public debate must move forward to review structural issues affecting information ecosystems.

Mains Question

Q.What are the perils of unrestrained online speech? Critically analyse the recent proposals by government to regulate the free speech.

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