We knew it was coming. In India, 53 crore people now use Whatsapp, YouTube 44.8 crore and Facebook 41 crore, Instagram 21 crore and Twitter 1.75 crore. The amount of misinformation that was being circulated through this huge network needed some regulation. The government tried several means earlier to regulate – for example asking the Indian telecommunication companies to introduce a blocking process which they refused. But finally the government has come up with a plan: making it mandatory for the social media aggregators to disclose the origin of any misinformation when asked for. All portals and different kinds of digital platforms need to develop a grievance mechanism. All digital platforms will have to mandatorily disclose who the owners are and it’s the place of origin.
Both Prakash Javdekar, the Information Minister and Ravishankar Prasad, the Minister of Law who announced the government’s plan to regulate the social media said they had been jailed during the Emergency for defending the ‘freedom of speech’ and they know its importance. They would never curb the freedom of speech, they claimed. They say the government is not introducing any new law. A ‘three tier system’ of regulation will be followed under the existing IT law.
First of all, the amount of misinformation, disinformation and malinformation that is being circulated in the media clearly showed that the idea of ‘self regulation’ was not working, though the two ministers clearly said they were still relying on media’s good sense and responsibility. However, the success of retaining the freedom of speech in this new web of regulation will be finally revealed in the implementation. The social media aggregators like Whatsapp, Facebook and Google may not agree to break their ‘encryption’ system to disclose the ‘originator of mischief’ in the misinformation chain. Mr. Prasad clarified the government was not asking for the content but the source. But can a journalist, under the law, be asked about the source of his story? But under the new system the government is clearly asking the social media aggregators to devise an algorithm by which the source of a story is identified. Technically it may be possible; but there certainly will be debate on the ethical aspect of law.
The Indian government is welcoming the vast reach of the social media and even admitting that it has ‘empowered’ the common man. But like in other countries, the ruling party has never found it comfortable to be criticized so severely in the social media. Almost all of the traditional media – the print, radio, television - have been more or less tamed either by the carrot or the stick. But so far it has not been possible for the social media. The government could have mandated the fact-checking system in the social media which is so weak in India while in other developed countries a rigorous fact checking system has to a large extent controlled misinformation from creeping into the authentic news generation.
Many news organizations have already made it clear this new system of regulation decided upon by the government is being adopted without any discussion with them. Mr. Javdekar defended himself by saying that the government does not know the details of publication of most of the social media platforms. And hence the government is seeking information of the publication. The government is not asking for a registration. The government claimed that if the print can have a press council, films a censor board and broadcasting a code of conduct, then why not the social media?
Freedom of Speech is a much contended concept. It’s there from the beginning of media history. It will not end here. The problem lies in the constitutional provisions and the implementation of the law.