By notifying tough changes to the IT rules of 2021, the Indian government has given itself sweeping powers to police contentious content on the internet. The five-member grievance appeal boards, to be set up within three months, will be dominated by government nominees. Official India’s control over the social media giants will now be near total as committees will be free to decide on suspended accounts, block or delete user accounts and order websites to remove content.
The law will, of course, only apply to India, as the giant social media sites operate globally and hate being stuck by the laws of a single country. The sites will face full regulatory scrutiny in India rather than the heat they faced whenever free speech ruled irresponsibly. Content moderation and regulation had been far too lax on most popular sites like Twitter, Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, Google’s YouTube, etc., which is why a control measure was deemed necessary, and not only in India.
The question is whether India is now assuming draconian powers to rein in the social media giants that have allowed a free flow of opinions of all hues and rants from anyone with an anonymous account on the sites. The irony is inevitable as social media companies themselves are in the throes of a huge financial downturn that is commensurate with the headwinds facing the global economy as such.
At this complex time in the history of the internet and its social media sites, Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and free speech absolutist, took control of Twitter, which he bought out for $44 billion. Having thought of acquiring the microblogging platform as a commitment to unfettered free speech, the businessman is now beginning to believe that a level of moderation would be needed to retain advertisers who would not spend maybe not their money if Twitter were to descend into a “hellish landscape” featuring the abuse of freedoms and the right to hold opinions.
Large swathes of users, especially on the political right, may wish to see Donald Trump, the messiah of fake news and misinformation, return to the platform although he is sticking to his “truth” for now. social”. While his case would be the most extreme of the cynical exploitation of social media that led to him being banned from Twitter based on a courageous decision by a couple of executives of Indian origin, it is clear that the enormous negativity generated by lack of moderation of content on the premise or promise of absolute freedom of speech, and not just at the time of US or Indian elections.
As a former public policy officer at Twitter put it, “Even the Wild West needs a sheriff, both to keep citizens safe but also to improve the prospects for commerce.” He may have supporters among India’s rulers who have long felt embarrassment over views opposing their own. But it is toxic content and misinformation that must be tightly regulated, where the government seems happy to wield an ax to establish control when content moderation and grievance redress should set the course for the future of social media.