The Centre on Friday notified the formation of three Grievance Appellate Committees which will have control over content moderation decisions taken by social media platforms in India.

The move 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 these government-appointed panels. The Union information technology ministry had announced the measure in October.

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On Friday, the ministry notified three such committees – each having a chairperson and two whole- time members. The chairpersons are government officers, while the members are retired government officials and senior executives from various industries.

The two whole-time members have been appointed for three-year terms, according to the ministry notification.

The first panel will be chaired by the chief executive officer of the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Retired Indian Police Service officer Ashutosh Shukla and Punjab National Bank’s former Chief General Manager and Chief Information Officer Sunil Soni have been appointed as the whole-time members of the panel.

The second panel will be chaired by the joint secretary in charge of the Policy and Administration Division in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Indian Navy’s retired Commodore Sunil Kumar Gupta and Kavindra Sharma, the former vice-president (consulting) of L&T Infotech, have been appointed as the whole-time members of this panel.

The third panel will be chaired by a senior scientist at the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. Former Traffic Service Officer of the Indian Railways Sanjay Goel and former Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of IDBI Intech Krishnagiri Ragothamarao have been appointed as the whole-time members of the third committee.

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 information technology ministry had said in its notification issued in October about the setting up of the panels.

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 had 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.

In October, non-government organisation Internet Freedom Foundation, which advocates for digital rights, had said 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.