Resolving social media grievances a tough job for GACs, warn policy experts

Business Standard, October 31, 2022

A day after the government notified the IT Amendment Rules, 2022, several public policy experts flagged challenges in front of the upcoming grievance appellate committees (GACs). This is mainly due to the huge volume of content-related complaints on social media platforms. The government has repeatedly expressed concern over flaws in the grievance redressal mechanism of various social media platforms.

Minister of State for Electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar said the failure to resolve complaints of Indian citizens is what is prompting the government to take this step. He added that the grievance redress mechanism that the government had left to the intermediaries to manage by simply appointing a grievance officer is broken, it is not functional.

“We have lakhs of messages from citizens and digital Nagariks whose grievances were not responded to or received a ‘thank you for your message’ response, and that is not acceptable to us,” the minister said at a press conference on Saturday.

However, public advocacy groups believe the scope of work in front of the GACs might make it difficult to solve users’ grievances effectively.

“While the move is well-intentioned, creating grievance appellate committees nominated by the government is likely to pose a grave risk to freedom of speech besides being administratively challenging. Given the volume of users on the internet, the number of complaints may be too large for the committees to handle,” said Rohit Kumar, Founder Partner at policy advocacy firm TQH Consulting.

Kumar said a better solution may be tiered levels of appeal at the platform level with independent stakeholders from outside, that finally culminates in the judicial system.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) on October 28 released the final version of the new amendments to the IT Rules, 2021. The newly inserted rules allow the government to appoint multiple grievance appellate committees (GACs) to redress complaints over social media content moderation.

MoS Chandrasekhar on Saturday also said the government will start redressing social media grievances by appointing one or two committees at the beginning and will appoint more of them if their need expands in the future. He added that the government will present the structure, the organisation, and the workings of the GAC “very shortly”.

In June when the draft proposals were made open to the public for consultation, the ministry had stated that there was a need to set up a GAC as it had observed many instances where grievance officers of intermediaries did not address grievances satisfactorily.

However, the government had also suggested the industry come up with a self-regulatory organisation. However, the big tech’s could not reach a consensus as Google was not ready for an external review and Meta and Twitter favoured self-regulation to avoid government overreach.

None of the big tech replied immediately on the changed rules. But sources in the know said that this will now mean more efforts will be needed to solve issues at their end and not escalate to the GACs.

A spokesperson of a global trade organisation, who does not wish to be named, said: “It seems the government has used its prerogative and decided to stick with creating the GACs. But this isn’t what was proposed by us during the public consultations. We had proposed a self-regulatory organisation to resolve social media grievances.”

As per the Gazette notification released by the Ministry of Electronics and IT, the government shall establish one or more GAC within three months from now. Each committee would consist of a chairperson and two whole-time members appointed by the government, one of whom will be an ex-officio member and two will be independent.

The digital rights advocates warned about possible problems in the capacity of the committees. Prateek Waghre, Policy Director, Internet Freedom Foundation, said the GAC may not be capable of scaling to meet the many challenges in today’s information ecosystem.

“It relies on decisions taken about individual pieces of content to attempt to address systemic issues that are caused by broader societal-level problems to produce ‘accountability theatre’. Aggregation of individual decisions won’t be able to address underlying problems since they are neither repeatable nor broadly applicable, given the complexities involved,” Waghre said.

According to public advocacy groups, the provision that requires social media platforms to remove unlawful content within 72 hours of reporting may escalate issues with the capacity of content moderation.

Amol Kulkarni, Director (Research) at CUTS International said the provision may turn out to be unfair to small platforms. “There is a problem because not all intermediaries will have the capacity to take down objectionable content within 72 hours. This creates concern over disproportionate or unfair treatment for smaller intermediaries who might not be in a position to do that. It might be useful to review this,” Kulkarni said.

He added that appointing GACs was a positive step. “It would be great if the government plans to appoint experts and consumer representatives in the GACs fairly and transparently. The amendment also says that the GAC can take opinions from experts in the field while making its decisions, which is a step in the right direction,” he said.

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