The Union information technology ministry on Friday notified the setting up of Grievance Appellate Committees which will have control over content moderation decisions taken by social media platforms in India.

The decision to form such panels within the next three months was notified as an amendment to the new Information Technology Rules introduced by the Centre last year.

The setting up of the grievance committees effectively means that if users are not satisfied with the decision of a social platform on whether to remove or moderate any content, they could now file an appeal with the government.

Each Grievance Appellate Committee will consist of a chairperson and two whole time members appointed by the Centre, a gazette notification issued by the information technology ministry stated.

Union Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw tweeted saying that the appellate committees would empower social media users.

How would the appellate committees function?

Social media users would first need to file an application with the grievance officer of the intermediary platform, who have been mandated to acknowledge the complaint within a day and resolve them within 15 days.

Complaints involving content that are allegedly obscene or pornographic, or threaten the unity and integrity of the country, need to be resolved within 72 hours, the notification stated.

However, if the user is not satisfied with the action taken by the social media platform, they can approach the government’s Grievance Appellate Committees. These committees will then resolve the matter within 30 days, the information technology ministry said.

The Grievance Appellate Committee can also take the assistance of “any person having requisite qualification, experience and expertise in the subject matter” while deciding on the appeals, the notification also said.

Concerns about the appellate committees

The setting up of the Grievance Appellate Committees has been in the making for a while now, and lawyers and rights activists have expressed concerns on how this could effectively give government officers the power to censor social media content.

Non-government organisation Internet Freedom Foundation, which advocates for digital rights said on Friday that the government’s move will “incentivise [social media] platforms to remove/suppress any speech unpalatable to the government”.

The body also cast apprehensions that the government-appointed committees could apply “opaque and arbitrary methods” while hearing the appeals.

Lawyer Apar Gupta who works extensively on digital rights in India wrote on Twitter that the appellate committees could establish “direct executive control” on social media content, and that the move presented a risk of censorship.

The new IT Rules

The new rules, notified in February 2021, constitute a set of sweeping regulations framed to regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content, virtually bringing them, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.

For digital news media and video streaming platforms, the new rules provide a self-regulatory body and an inter-departmental committee wide-ranging punitive powers to “warn/censure/admonish/reprimand the publisher” or even censor content as they deem fit.

Several media outlets have challenged the new rules in courts. They have argued that the guidelines will allow the government to directly control their content. In May, the Supreme Court had put a stay on the proceedings pending before various High Courts on petitions against the new Information Technology Rules.

The decision came after multiple High Courts passed orders on pleas challenging the rules.

In separate orders in March and July last year, the Kerala High Court had asked the Centre not to take action against legal news portal Live Law and the News Broadcasters Association.

In August, a division bench of the Bombay High Court had stayed the implementation of Rule 9 (1) and (3) of the new IT rules. The provisions deal with the code of ethics under the new IT rules.

In December, the Madras High Court also directed the centre to not take any coercive action against digital media organisations under the new IT rules. This judgement was passed on a plea filed against the IT rules by the Digital News Publishers Association, an organisation of 12 digital media outlets, along with journalist Mukund Padmanabhan.

Twitter vs Centre: A case in point on removing content

The Karnataka High Court is hearing a plea filed by Twitter challenging the central government’s orders to block 39 tweets and accounts on the platform between February 2021 and February 2022. The government had ordered the action under the Information Technology Act, 2000.

Twitter has argued that under Section 69A of the IT Act, blocking orders can only be issued if it is in line with the six grounds mentioned in the law.

The grounds for blocking information are that it should be in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of the country, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence.

Senior Advocate Arvind Datar argued in the court that intermediaries like Twitter should have the power to move court against a government order to block user accounts on their platform, Live Law reported.

In response, the Centre had argued that platforms like Twitter cannot dictate what constitutes free speech and what content on social media could threaten national security.

At the last hearing of the case on Thursday, lawyers representing Twitter argued that the government should provide its users reason for blocking their accounts. Senior Advocate Ashok Haranahalli told the court unless the reasons are mentioned, a user or a social media platform like Twitter will not be able to challenge the blocking order in a court