November 20, 2023
The IT Rules, 2021 are a set of regulations that aim to make the internet in India open, safe, trusted, and accountable for the digital nagriks (citizens). The IT Rules, 2021 require social media intermediaries, online publishers, and OTT platforms to follow certain due diligence measures, such as providing a grievance redressal mechanism, removing unlawful content, and disclosing information about their users and content.
The Grievance Appellate Committee (GAC) is a body created by the IT Rules, 2021, to handle user grievances and issue binding orders to the platforms. The IT Rules, 2021 are a set of regulations that aim to make the internet in India safe, open, trustworthy, and accountable for the digital citizens.
The GAC consists of three members, who are experts in the fields of law, technology, media, or human rights. The GAC operates online and digitally, and users can file their appeals on its portal. The portal allows users to submit their grievances, upload supporting documents, track the status of their appeals, and receive the GAC orders.
The GAC can issue orders to the platforms to take appropriate action on the grievances, such as removing, modifying, or restoring the content, or providing an explanation or apology to the user. For example, the GAC issued 10 orders to social media platforms Meta (Facebook and Instagram) and WhatsApp in August 2023, as per their transparency reports. However, the exact nature and details of these orders are not public and cannot be appealed or revised.
The GAC orders are binding on the platforms, that wish to retain their safe harbour protections under Section 79 of the IT Act, 2000. This means that the platforms cannot be held liable for any third-party content on their platforms, as long as they comply with the GAC orders and the IT Rules, 2021. This is intended to ensure that the platforms follow the due diligence measures and respect the rights and interests of the users.
However, some critics have raised concerns about the transparency, accountability, and legality of the GAC orders, as well as their impact on the platforms’ operations and users’ rights. They argue that the GAC orders may violate the freedom of expression and privacy of the users and that the platforms may face undue pressure and censorship from the government. They also question the independence and expertise of the GAC members and the lack of judicial oversight and public scrutiny of the GAC orders. Therefore, they call for a more balanced and inclusive approach to regulation, that respects the diversity and dynamism of the digital ecosystem in India, and fosters a culture of trust, cooperation, and innovation among all the stakeholders.
The GAC orders may be related to the complaints received by the platforms from the users or the government authorities. The platforms must report the number of complaints and actions taken in their monthly transparency reports. Based on the IT Rules, 2021, five social media platforms in India published transparency reports for May 2023. These reports disclosed the number and nature of user complaints and the actions taken. In May, Indian users filed 65,993 complaints, mainly related to account bans, nudity, abusive content, and child abuse. Google received the highest number of complaints (28,301), followed by Facebook (16,995), WhatsApp (10,442), Instagram (9,737), and Twitter (518).
However, apart from the number of orders sent in a particular month, there is no information about the nature of the orders sent by the GAC. This raises concerns about the transparency, accountability, and legality of the GAC orders, as well as their impact on the platforms’ operations and users’ rights.
Some of the challenges and concerns faced by the platforms and users in India are:
• Child abuse: In May, the platforms reported over a million child abuse cases, with Facebook and Instagram contributing to most of them. Facebook reported 255,100 cases of child sexual exploitation and 144,200 cases of child nudity and physical abuse. Instagram reported 199,400 cases of child sexual exploitation and 18,600 cases of child nudity and physical abuse. Twitter received 450 child sexual exploitation complaints and took action against 89 URLs based on the same.
• Suicide and self-injury: The platforms also reported nearly 3 million content pieces related to suicide and self-injury in May, with Facebook and Instagram reporting 1.4 million content pieces each. Twitter received 33 complaints related to the promotion of suicide or self-harm and took action on three URLs for the same.
• Harassment: In May, the major social media platforms reported over 1.2 million cases of harassment, with Instagram leading the pack with 835,200 cases, followed by Facebook with 440,300 cases, and Twitter with 1,063 cases. They also reported taking action against 1,394 URLs linked to hateful conduct.
• Hate speech: Additionally, the same platforms reported over 1.275 million cases of hate speech, with Instagram reporting 35,500 cases, Facebook reporting 86,400 cases, and Twitter reporting 84 cases. They reported taking action against 4,264 URLs related to hate speech.
• Account bans and removals: The platforms also reported account bans and removal actions based on user complaints and orders from the GAC. In May, WhatsApp banned over 7.1 million accounts in India as per the IT Rules, 2021. Twitter suspended 106 accounts after receiving 116 grievances and overturning 10 complaints. This is a significant increase from August, which saw around 68 suspended accounts and 78 requests. Facebook and Instagram took action against 4,942 and 4,843 reports, respectively.
• Content removals and modifications: Finally, the platforms reported removing or modifying several content pieces in May based on user complaints and GAC orders. Google removed 66,043 pieces of content based on user complaints. Twitter took action against 4,264 URLs on September.
The IT Rules, 2021 and the GAC are two important regulatory mechanisms that affect the digital landscape in India. They aim to protect the rights and interests of the users, as well as the platforms, from various online harms and threats. However, they also pose several challenges and concerns for the platforms and users, such as the lack of transparency, accountability, and legality of the GAC orders, the high volume and nature of user complaints and content removals, and the potential impact on the freedom of expression and privacy of the users. Therefore, there is a need for a more balanced and inclusive approach to regulation, that respects the diversity and dynamism of the digital ecosystem in India and fosters a culture of trust, cooperation, and innovation among all the stakeholders.