Editorials/Opinions Analysis For UPSC 15 October 2022
- The Governing structure behind online speech
- The split verdict on Karnataka hijab ban
The Governing Structure Behind Online Speech
- The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) has proposed two proposals for online speech governance: grievance appellate committees (GACs) and an industry self-regulatory body (SRB).
- According to the article, this proposal seeks to preclude competition in favour of a unilateral government and industry agenda.
GS Paper 2: Parliament and parliamentary Proceedings and Procedures
Explain the importance of the right to protest in a democratic society. (150 words)
- MeitY proposed changes to the IT Rules 2021 earlier in 2022.
- One of these changes was the formation of a new GAC with the authority to override the decisions of Resident Grievance Officers, who are required to be appointed by significant social media intermediaries (SSMIs) under IT Rules 2021.
Concerning GACs and SRBs
- Grievance appellate committees (GACs): According to Meity’s draught, the GACs will be formed by the central government to ensure that social media intermediaries do not take grievance redressal mechanisms lightly.
- Its goal is to give users a first option to “appeal against the grievance redressal process of social media companies” before going to court.
- Self-regulatory body (SRB): The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), an apex grouping of global and local social media companies, has proposed the SRB.
- SSMIs such as Twitter, Meta (Facebook), Google, and others will appoint their own personnel and form a self-regulatory body to hear complaints about social media posts.
- The proposed committee will hear user appeals for “removal or reinstatement of user accounts or information, data, or communication links uploaded by users for violating signatory’s policies,” as handled by resident grievance officers appointed by the intermediaries.
- However, decisions involving “serious and egregious (bad) nature” content, or actions taken under Section 69A of the IT Act, or uploaded by users with “pre-existing commercial arrangements,” cannot be challenged.
- Absence of a defined framework: The government has not established a substantive policy with objectively defined contours of prohibited speech.
- Applies to lone users: The government wants the authority to apply these highly subjective criteria to specific pieces of content and/or users.
- The government has already abdicated this right, routinely issuing takedown orders (without providing justification) to social media platforms with little resistance from the platforms.
- These orders do not provide the content creator with a right to a hearing and are frequently secret, making scrutiny of government decisions impossible.
- Oriented coverage: An additional purpose of the GACs is likely to be to provide an institutional avenue for the ruling party machinery to reinstate a set of aligned accounts/content rather than just takedowns.
- Digital gag (suppression): Industry bodies and groups such as the Internet Freedom Foundation and others have warned that the GAC could act as a “digital gag,” making the Centre the arbiter of permissible internet speech.
- No executive power: The argument that an elected government has earned the right to set speech standards, like other policy decisions, is flawed because speech is the only democratic way to challenge the government itself.
Arguments in Favor of GAC
- The government claims that the new grievance redressal mechanism will compel intermediaries to uphold citizens’ constitutional rights.
- IT For Change (ITfC), a Bengaluru-based think tank, argued that the GAC mechanism is required because grievance officers have failed to adequately address user grievances in the past.
- It has also demanded that the GAC be given “quasi-judicial” powers in order to be effective.
Arguments for Industry SRB
- Lacks democratic legitimacy: Platforms are typically motivated by profit motives, which are frequently at odds with public interest
- This is evident in the widespread amplification of disinformation and hate speech in order to increase engagement, even if it comes at the expense of the integrity of the information ecosystem.
- Lax standards: In India, in particular, US-based social media platforms have been far more lax in enforcing their own content standards than in their home country.
- As a result, such a platform-led body is likely to prioritise the interests of the industry and individual platforms over the interests of the Indian people.
- Poor restraint record: Despite Twitter’s petition in the Karnataka High Court against the Centre’s “disproportionate use of power” in issuing “overbroad and arbitrary” content-blocking orders, the track record of Indian platforms in resisting government pressure has been dismal.
- For example, a former Twitter safety head reportedly told US regulators that the company was forced to hire a government agent.
- Act as a rubber stamp: The SRB may serve as a rubber stamp, granting covert government pressure false legitimacy.
- Furthermore, because SRB orders are binding, the government will be able to exert pressure on a single lever to ensure compliance across all platforms.
- Risk of self-censorship: According to the Internet Freedom Foundation, SRB will influence SSMIs to exercise extra caution and discretion when dealing with politically sensitive content, resulting in self-censorship.
- Ineffective body: The SRB as a body may be a non-starter, riddled with internal disagreement or non-compliance, paving the way for the government GAC. The divergent perspectives of the constituent platforms point to this possibility.
- GAC rules: The self-regulatory organisation (SRO) can only coexist with the GAC model. The GAC, on the other hand, can function without the SRO.
The way forward
- Legislative oversight: To meet the minimum standards of democratic legitimacy, a statutory regulator accountable to Parliament can be reinstated.
- Specified and clear criteria: Transparency must be ingrained in the way content moderation decisions are made, including the government’s takedown orders.
- Evaluating overall impact: Current proposals are focused on policing individual pieces of content, whereas debate should focus on the larger role of social media platforms and their impact on democratic societies.
- Address structural issues: Social media platforms are increasingly intervening in amplifying certain voices, and our public debate must continue to examine structural issues affecting information ecosystems.
Given the importance of free speech in a democracy, no government or private body can have absolute authority over the boundaries of acceptable speech. Thus, the governance of speech, including the establishment of standards and their implementation, must fall outside the purview of government.
The Split Verdict on Karnataka Hijab Ban
The Supreme Court issued a split decision in a batch of petitions challenging the Karnataka High Court’s ruling upholding the state’s prohibition on wearing hijab in educational institutions.
GS Paper 2: Indian Constitution- historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure.
“Any public displays of religion should be prohibited in public places.” Discuss the statement in light of the Karnataka government’s recent orders regarding school uniforms. (250 Words)
The Hijab Row
- Hijab Row On January 1, six female students at Government PU College in Udupi claimed that they were not allowed to enter classrooms while wearing hijab.
- The students began protesting against college officials, which quickly escalated into a statewide issue.
- Several petitions were later filed in the Karnataka High Court.
- Muslim students sought the right to wear Hijabs in classrooms under Articles 14, 19, and 25 of the Indian Constitution in these petitions.
The HC rendered its decision
- Hijab is not required for Islamic practise: The Karnataka High Court ruled that wearing a hijab is not required for Islamic practise. As a result, the right to religious freedom was not violated.
- There is no significant right.
- It determined that there is no substantive right to free expression or privacy inside a classroom, and thus these rights were not at issue here.
- Legislation that is indistinguishable
- It also held that the ban did not directly result from the government’s order, which only required a uniform dress code to be prescribed by the State or school management committees.
- As a result, the law did not discriminate against Muslim students, either directly or indirectly.
The case has reached the Supreme Court.
- Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court of India challenging the Karnataka High Court’s decision.
- A two-judge Bench began hearing arguments on the correctness of a Karnataka High Court decision.
- This hearing resulted in the current split verdict.
- The Supreme Court has issued a divided decision on whether Muslim students should remove their hijabs at the school gates.
- A split verdict is issued when the Bench cannot reach a decision in a case, either unanimously or by majority vote.
- Split verdicts are only possible if the Bench has an even number of judges.
- Justice Hemant Gupta upholds Karnataka’s prohibitive government order, saying “apparent symbols of religious belief cannot be worn to secular schools maintained with State funds.”
- He went on to say that secularity’ meant uniformity, as evidenced by uniformity among students.
- According to Justice Gupta, wearing a uniform was a reasonable restriction on free expression. The discipline emphasised equality.
- The HC verdict was opposed by Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia.
- Secularity, according to Justice Dhulia, meant tolerance for diversity.
- Whether or not to wear a hijab to school was ultimately a personal choice. Hijab is a ticket to education for girls from conservative families.
- Requiring the girls to remove their hijab before entering the school gates is first an invasion of their privacy, then an attack on their dignity, and finally a denial of secular education.
What comes next?
- If the verdict is split, the case is heard by a larger Bench.
- The larger Bench to which a split verdict is sent can be a three-judge High Court Bench, or an appeal can be filed with the Supreme Court.
- In the case of the hijab ruling, the CJI, as the “master of the roster,” will form a new, larger Bench to hear the case.