The Grievance Appellate Committees, which will have control over content moderation decisions taken by social media platforms in India, will be set up by November 30, reported PTI.

Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar said that the government will also announce the modalities and terms of reference for the setting up of the committee in the next 10-12 days.

The formation of the panels was notified by the Union information technology ministry on October 28. It was notified as an amendment to the new Information Technology Rules introduced by the Centre last year.

The setting up of the Grievance Appellate Committees effectively means that if users are not satisfied with the decision of a social media 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.

On Tuesday, Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar said that social media platforms in India will not have the option to “pick and choose” compliance with guidelines in the new Information Technology Rules.

He warned that the the “safe harbour protections” of the platforms will be taken away if they do not follow the rules, PTI reported.

Under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, social media platforms, or intermediaries, are protected from being held liable for content posted by users. However, the new IT rules, notified in February 2021, states that failure to comply with the guidelines would result in this indemnity being taken away.

“If platforms increasingly comply with obligations of content moderation as has been laid out, which addresses user harm, national security and misinformation...then there is no need for a safe harbour to go,” Chandrasekhar said on Tuesday, according to PTI. “If they don’t comply…then there is no consequence or obligation on part of the government to provide them safe harbour.”

He, however, added that everything will be finalised after consultation with social media companies.

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 has been mandated to acknowledge the complaint within a day and resolve it within 15 days.

According to a notification published by the government on October 28, all 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.

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 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.