There is a need to look into the algorithms of social media intermediaries if these go against the law or are in breach of Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar said Monday.
“These are all areas we need to discuss publicly. Algorithms that infringe on Articles 14, 19, and 21 of any citizen are still an infringement. Our main job is to protect the right to free speech, privacy, and the right to non-discrimination online just as the government does offline,” Chandrasekhar said at the launch of the frequently asked questions (FAQ) on part two of the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, also known as the Information Technology Rules, 2021.
He added, “If algorithms or any other conduct of any intermediary comes in the way of that, it is a matter for the law to deal with, if not today then in the future.” Articles 14, 19, and 21 guarantee equality before law, freedom of speech and expression, and protection of life and personal liberty.
The Indian Express had, on October 27, reported that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) was preparing a report on the key findings related to India in the internal documents collected by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, including alleged discrepancies in algorithmic recommendations that increased visibility of divisive content and misinformation to new Indian users. A day later, the MeitY wrote to Facebook India head Ajit Mohan, seeking details of the key findings related to the whistleblower’s testimony, and the algorithmic discrepancies.
On Monday, Chandrasekhar said that the detailed standard operating procedures (SOPs) on the IT Rules would be released “at some point”. “There are issues related to who is the designated competent authority for which ministry. There will be at some point an SOP which the government will come up with and the Ministry will facilitate that, which will designate which agencies will be the competent authority. That will be a part of the natural evolution of these rules,” he said.
The FAQs, released nearly eight months after the IT Rules were published by the MeitY, come after several requests by the industry for clarifications on aspects such as which agencies had the jurisdiction to send takedown notices to social media companies.
Social media intermediaries have repeatedly raised the need for an SOP after several agencies sent them take-down notices, allegedly without jurisdiction. They conveyed their concerns to the MeitY after the controversy earlier this year regarding Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s post on social media, showing the parents of a nine-year-old Dalit girl who had been allegedly raped.
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) sent notices to both Gandhi and the social media platforms. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter took down the post, but claimed they had acted on the basis of their internal guidelines on posting and not the NCPCR notice.
An executive at a social media company had told The Indian Express at the time that as per the Supreme Court judgment in the Shreya Singhal case, wherein Section 66A of the IT Act was struck down, the direction to remove any social media content could come only through a court order, or from a competent authority of the central government under Section 69A of the IT Act. The executive had said that neither Section 69A nor the blocking rules under the IT Act authorised NCPCR to direct intermediaries to remove content.