Social media platforms have brought the world closer, and enabled users to express themselves freely, fearlessly, and safely across the globe. These platforms have also enabled users to access and consume diverse content, in a never seen before manner. The popularity of social media platforms has the potential for turning them into a vehicle for inclusive, democratic and free expression.
However, many anti-social elements have been using social media for spreading problematic content (such as fake news, pornography, hate speech, scams etc.), creating fake accounts, cyber-bullying and stalking, trolling etc. Service Providers have also been time and again accused of violating privacy of uses, deploying inadequate personal data protection measures, user profiling and/or manipulation, and indulging in anti-competitive practices. Such issues cause much harm to users (particularly new/vulnerable users), in the form of increasing polarisation, instigating negative reactions, promoting abusive behaviour, creating trust deficits etc.
Social Media largely needs specific regulation on three fronts – curbing problematic content, personal data privacy and protection, and preventing user manipulation. While some laws and rules are in place for such issues, more are in the pipeline or are being deliberated upon. These have been discussed below.
Personal Data Protection
India is presently deliberating upon the Personal Data Protection Bill 2019. However, the bill is yet to see the light of day, and Social Media platforms are required to comply with scattered laws and rules, such as: Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act); and Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Data or Information) Rules, 2011 (IT Rules); among others. (read more – Data Governance)
The bill gives special emphasis on significant data fiduciaries, which are likely to include most of the popular social media platforms. Apart from complying with other universally applicable provisions, they also have to register themselves with the proposed Data Protection Authority, conduct Data Protection Impact Assessment before introducing new data processing technologies in certain circumstances, maintain accurate and up-to-date records of their data management systems, get its data processing practices audited by an independent auditor, appoint a resident data protection officer, and enable voluntary verification of user accounts.
Curbing the Spread of Problematic Content
The IT Act provides protection to Social Media platforms against liability arising from the content posted on its platform. However, the same may cease, if a service provider does not observe due diligence while discharging its duties under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (intermediary guidelines). These guidelines are an updated version of the 2011 version, changes to which were deliberated upon in 2019.
User Profiling or Manipulation
The PDPB recognises the possible significant impact of social media platforms on India’s electoral democracy, and the possible significant harm to data principals arising from large scale profiling. While the PDPB imposes stricter data protection requirements, and IT rules seek to curb content related manipulative practices; there have been instances of alleged social media bias in content moderation. Such instances are being investigated by Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs), and the judiciary.
Owing to network effects, select platforms enjoy a dominant position in the social media segment. There have been instances of alleged abuse of dominant position against certain platforms, on account of arbitrary terms and conditions of their services for users. These are presently being examined by the Competition Commission of India (CCI).
Areas Requiring Research
Basis the regulatory scenario of e-commerce in India, Narayan Chamber of Policy (NCP) has identified areas requiring research. These have been listed below.
- Explore transparency measures to be adopted by social media platforms with respect to unbiased content moderation;
- Explore ways to counter different kinds of problematic content being spread on social media platform;
- Ensure optimal data regulation applicable on social media platforms; and
- Conduct competition impact assessment of select policies of social media platforms.