Hold social media platforms to account

While a comprehensive analysis of the data protection Bill, as approved by Parliament‘s Standing Committee on Information Technology, would have to await its tabling in the House, some of its reported elements call for comment and possible correction before the government tables the Bill.

The most important part of the Bill, reportedly the subject of dissent notes by assorted committee members, relates to the blanket exemption from data protection norms for government agencies in the name of national security. This violates the right to privacy of citizens, ruled a fundamental right by the Supreme Court in 2017, and all democratic norms. Democracy calls for a balance between the power of the state and the autonomy of the individual. While it is no one’s case that any fundamental right is absolute, a justification must be established for truncating any fundamental right. In the US, a court order has to be obtained for any law enforcement agency to breach any citizen’s privacy. That should be the case in India as well. Further, all instances of such authorised breach of privacy must be subject to review by a committee of Parliament. Instances of state agencies alleging crimes and global conspiracies that the higher judiciary later dismiss as baseless – the Aryan Khan chargesheet being a recent instance – abound. To not hold state agencies accountable for the surveillance of citizens they carry out in the name of prosecuting crime or protecting national security would be to give them carte blanche to violate citizen rights.

Any move to hold large social media platforms that deploy algorithms to channel individually tailored news feeds to their subscribers accountable for the content they host, on par with regular publishers, would be welcome. That would ease the burden of content moderation on these platforms. Rather than see responsibility on par with that of mainstream media as a restriction, social media should see it as liberation from having to define the contours of tolerance themselves, instead of outsourcing it to the law.


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