The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Government of India (MeitY), led by Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, has announced the proposed Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code. The guidelines will cover social networks, digital media companies, and OTT platforms while making the nation’s sovereign stance clear on matters of ethics and the protection of freedom of expression of creators, publishers, and digital platform companies, and balancing the questions of accountability and grievance redressal that are posed by the citizens of the country.
At a time when governments across the world are faced with difficult questions on how to balance these many important principles in their respective democracies, the ministry’s announcement reveals an approach that is aligned with the thinking of today without imposing unreasonable boundaries on the innovation and expression that must continue to lead the country into the future. With this refreshing light-touch and empowering approach, the guidelines are clearly designed to carefully balance the many priorities and contexts of all stakeholders of these ecosystems while ensuring that the rule of law can be enforced objectively and in full alignment with the Constitution.
With this move, India continues to deepen its position as a leader in digital policy and technological innovation. India’s startup ecosystem is the third-largest in the world, only behind the US and China. The country is home to over 50,000 startups, with between $11-14 billion in startup funding being invested every year. With over 700 million internet users and half a billion social network users, India is also amongst the largest open digital markets on the planet. Even China, with its larger digital population, has not emulated India’s commitment to supporting a fair and open local market for global companies across industry segments, especially those that are digital. These guidelines have been intentionally designed so that India’s next-gen digital media innovators can propel the acceleration of value generation and inclusive empowerment of their local users, while global companies that have large user bases in the country can also align with a common framework that protects creators and consumers alike.
Citizens will welcome the GOI’s move and corporates and startups will respond with overwhelming support to this balanced framework. MeitY’s collaborative approach to the drafting of these guidelines ensured an inclusive framework that has embraced the concerns of citizens, protects the freedom of speech and expression of creators, encourages the many regional language communities and applications that are essential for the freedom of expression of every Indian citizen while adding minimal friction or disincentives for the continued growth of the country’s digital ecosystems. This approach also sends a clear message that the GOI has prioritised the interests of its most vulnerable citizens.
The proposal has clearly-defined grievance redressal mechanisms that empower every social and digital media intermediary to self-enforce effective mechanisms to address complaints from users. With a special focus on protecting the online safety and dignity of users, especially women, the guidelines have prioritised affirmative addressal of the most serious issues that have affected India’s digital population. They also ensure that the digital platform companies are empowered to report the first originator of the grievance-causing information, thus ensuring that liability is limited while the country’s laws can be fully and effectively enforced on the actual perpetrators. Equally importantly, they provide users with an opportunity to be heard — a vital defence against the arbitrary censorship that several social media platforms are increasingly embracing globally.
The guidelines also address a controversial and contemporary issue that has challenged the world’s governments today — that of arbitrary censorship by social network companies. Twitter’s recent move to “permanently suspend” former US President Donald Trump’s account some weeks ago for “violations of the Twitter Rules”, while refusing to comply with the GOI’s blocking orders on accounts that clearly violated Indian law, has demonstrated the comical arbitrariness in the interpretations that are made by some of these digital platform companies. The need of the hour is for every country to have a body of clearly-defined policy that is consistent with the principles of their democracies. India has taken a leadership position and made these issues a matter of inclusive public debate through this announcement. The country’s guidelines will ensure that unlawful information has clear boundary conditions, liability is defined, the process for enforcement of orders is transparent, and that all social and digital media companies can rely on a consistent definition of the ethics code that protects all participants in the digital ecosystem.
There is no doubt today, especially in the post-COVID-19 new normal, that citizens’ digital privacy and integrity, freedom of expression, data localisation, and the sovereign’s capacity to enforce the rule of law and ensure the integrity of their nation’s digital economy are inviolable necessities. There is also an equally critical imperative for the Government of India to approach these important issues with a mindset of flexibility and agility in order to support and not add friction to the inevitable role digital innovation will play in the country’s path towards becoming a $5 trillion economy.
This light-touch, empowering, and inclusive regulatory architecture is exactly what the country was hoping for, and India’s citizens will applaud this move as a foundational pillar towards an Atmanirbhar India.
The writer is chairman, Aarin Capital