By Prashant Reddy
Twitter’s management has reportedly declined an invitation by the parliamentary department-related standing committee (DRSC) on information technology to discuss the issue of ‘safeguarding citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms’. Many commentators have been backing Twitter. They see the social media company’s behaviour as a ‘snub’ to the government being goaded by right-wing, hyper-nationalist elements.
It should be noted, however, that these DRSCs, which have representations from all political parties in Parliament, are one of the few truly bipartisan institutions in the country. The committee decides on subjects for study by conducting avote among committee members from across the political spectrum, not just from BJP. If anybody is being snubbed here, it is the Indian Parliament, not the Narendra Modi government.
Over the years, DRSCs have published detailed bipartisan reports, holding both the executive and private sector accountable for their actions. Unlike US Congressional or British parliamentary committee hearings that are televised, DRSC hearings are generally confidential. Thus, the transcripts of depositions can be made available only if the committee agrees to do make them public.
This rule also means that MPs on the committee rarely discuss the proceedings with the media until the report is tabled. While this is problematic from a transparency perspective, it also means that there was little room for Twitter to be publicly embarrassed by any DRSC MP. At most, the MPs could have asked Twitter to give more details about its content moderation practices.
This episode will have two important ramifications for the future of technology regulation in India. The first is with regard to content moderation policies adopted by social media giants. These policies, implemented by faceless moderators, lay down rules for content that may be posted on social media sites and penalties for violating the guidelines.
Penalties for users can include limited suspensions, blocked accounts and ‘shadow banning’ — blocking a user or his content in such a way that it may not readily be apparent to the user that he has been banned. Women have complained that Twitter does not do enough about rape threats, while the Indian right wing has claimed that they are being shadow-banned.
It would appear that Indian users are not confident about the objectivity of these platforms. The question that will be the focus of Indian policymakers is whether Parliament should intervene to force social media platforms to be more transparent in their content moderation practices, given how important these platforms are to political speech in India. But what exactly does ‘increased transparency’ mean? Should social media sites be required to publish the names of all their content moderators? Should Indian citizens not have a right to know the identity of these faceless content moderators who have the power to moderate speech on their platforms? After all, newspapers are required to publish the names of the editor, printer and publisher under the law.
Most of these social media companies do release reports on takedowns of content as a result of government or judicial directions. But we have no information on the content taken down because of private complaints. Perhaps such disclosures would help Parliament to decide the nature of regulation to be imposed on social media platforms.
The second ramification of Twitter’s snub to Parliament is that it will make it easier for GoI to push for greater regulation over Silicon Valley. If Twitter can afford to ignore the Indian Parliament, what is the chance that GoI, never mind acommon Indian citizen, can hold these mega companies accountable? Existing legal safeguards to ensure accountability of Silicon Valley — such as the requirement of all websites to advertise details of a grievance redressal officer — have been circumvented by the latter’s practice of designating its staff in California as grievance redressal officers. It doesn’t help that the same companies also mandate arbitration in California in cases of disputes with Indian users.
Each of these policies has been crafted by Silicon Valley with the intention of reducing their accountability before courts outside the US. India, then, would be justified in introducing new policies that level the playing field between ‘Silicon Valley’ and the Indian legal system.
These new policies could include diluting the intermediary liability rules, mandating dispute resolution before Indian courts, and moving ahead with data localisation norms that would give GoI greater capacity for regulation.
Twitter’s reluctance to make itself accountable to Parliament has been an eyeopener to many on how little control the Indian State has over platforms that wield incredible power over Indian consumers.
It is now up to Parliament to lay down the new rules of accountability for Silicon Valley.
The writer is senior resident fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi