Explained: Why is there a divide between social media companies over a self regulatory body?

There is a widening divide among internet companies on setting up a self-regulatory body – to address complaints by social media users – as an alternative to the Centre’s Grievance Appellate Committee (GAC).

Snap and Google are learnt to have opposed an industry proposal to create such a body. They have flagged concerns over the potential inability to legally challenge any final content moderation decisions of a self-governing body, in addition to the difference in the moderation policies of different platforms, many executives aware of these discussions told The Indian Express.

Facebook and Twitter, however, are learnt to be in support of the body’s creation.

What is the proposal by the tech firms?

Social media companies, along with industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), are currently chalking up the contours of a self-regulatory mechanism in response to the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY)’s proposal to set up “government-appointed committees” to address complaints raised by users about social media companies’ content-moderation decisions.

Why are Google and Snap opposing this?

During a closed-door meeting, Google is learnt to have expressed reservations about the current structure of the self-regulatory body which, in a draft policy, said that decisions passed by the body will be binding in nature. This is where the company’s concern stems from.

“Orders passed by the GAC can be challenged in court, whereas the scope for challenging a ‘binding’ order passed by a self-regulatory body is much lower,” a source said.

Another argument is that while having senior executives of all social media companies in the self-regulatory body could make it easy to reach a consensus, disagreements are also likely. “Different companies have their respective content moderation guidelines. What is acceptable for a certain firm may not be OK for the other because their community guidelines are different. So the real challenge for any self-regulatory body is to reach a consensus on content moderation decisions for all platforms,” an executive said.

In a statement, a Google spokesperson said: “We had a preliminary meeting and are engaging in active discussions with the industry as well as the government. We are exploring all options and look forward to working with stakeholders to find the best possible solution.”

While Facebook declined to comment, queries sent to Twitter, Snap and IAMAI remained unanswered.

Why is this significant?

An absence of consensus among social media companies could jeopardise its bargaining power with the government to allow a self-regulatory body instead of its proposed GACs. Industry bodies like the US-India Business Council and the Asia Internet Coalition, which count major American tech firms as members, have opposed the formation of these government-appointed committees, questioning their effect on independence.

Industry sources also hinted at a “disjointed” way in which deliberations about the self-regulatory body have happened so far. “Many IAMAI members, including some social media companies, were not aware about the steps the body had taken towards the formalisation of the self-regulatory body. A WhatsApp group was initially created and a document was circulated among the members of the group which did not involve many IAMAI members,” a source at another tech firm said.

What was the government’s proposal on GACs?

In proposed amendments to the Information Technology Rules, MeitY suggested setting up Grievance Appellate Committees (GACs), even though the ministry said it is open to a self-regulatory body of social media companies to handle such issues.

In June, during a public consultation with stakeholders, Minister of State for Electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrashekhar had said that the government will go ahead with the proposed appellate committees. He had added that if the industry were to come up with a self-regulatory mechanism that worked for the government, the ,inistry would “move to that”.

Senior government officials said MeitY is expected to go ahead with the GACs in the final version of the IT Rules as it is of the view that a self-regulatory body may not be inclusive of all companies and could end up “prioritising” a handful of the bigger social media firms like Facebook, Twitter and Google.

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