India will set up one or more grievance committees to monitor content moderation decisions by social media companies, it said on Friday, moving ahead with a proposal that has rattled Meta, Google and Twitter in its key overseas market, but one it finds necessary.
In an amendment to the country’s new IT law that came into effect last year, the Indian government said any individual aggrieved by social media’s designated grievance redressal can appeal to the Grievance Appellate Committee, which will consist of a chairman and two full-time members appointed by the government. (In accordance with IT rules, social media companies last year appointed grievance officers and other officials in India to hear feedback and complaints from their users.) The change will take effect on Friday, according to a release.
The Complaints Appeals Committee will have the power to overturn the social media’s decision, the government said. Individuals will be allowed to submit their appeal within 30 days from the date of receipt of the notice from the Complaints Officer. The designated committees will also have to “dispose of such appeal expeditiously” and come up with their resolution within 30 days, the amendment says.
“Every order passed by the Grievance Appellate Committee shall be followed by the intermediary concerned and a report thereof shall be uploaded on its website,” New Delhi said in a statement.
The latest amendment to the IT Act also requires social media companies to accept user complaints within 24 hours and address them within 15 days. If the request is for removal of content in cases such as obscenity, pornography, patent infringement and violation of local laws, the complaint should be resolved within 72 hours, the amendment says.
Shortly after India proposed the creation of such panels, the US-India Business Council (USIBC), part of the US Chamber of Commerce, and the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF), both raised concerns about the independence of such committees if the government controlled their formation. Both companies represent tech giants, including Google, Meta and Twitter.
The decision to form panels follows tensions between the Indian government and social media companies Meta and Twitter over the content and accounts they keep or remove. Twitter took heat from New Delhi for not blocking some tweets last year that the Indian government deemed offensive.
Twitter called a tweet by Sambit Patra, the spokesperson for India’s ruling party BJP, last May as “manipulated media”. Days later, a special team from the Delhi Police investigating terrorism and other crimes made a surprise visit to two of Twitter’s offices in the country to seek information about Twitter’s justification for calling Patra’s tweets manipulated.
Twitter said at the time that it was “concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to free speech of the people we serve,” and this year it moved to sue the Indian government to challenge some of the blocking orders on tweets and accounts .
Lawyers for Elon Musk, who as of today owns Twitter, earlier raised concerns about Twitter’s lawsuit against the Indian government, saying such a move risks the company’s third largest market.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar, India’s minister of state for electronics and information technology, told Reuters on Friday that the government expects Musk-owned Twitter to comply with the country’s IT regulations.
“Our rules and laws for intermediaries remain the same regardless of who owns the platforms. So, the expectation of compliance with Indian laws and regulations remains,” he told the news agency.
In an interview with TechCrunch on Saturday, Chandrasekhar said the panel to oversee social media decisions will not be driven by any ideological views.
“It was clear that the accountability goal that they [previous IT] rules that had been placed on grievance officers were not working. And that’s why we did GAC, he said.
The New Delhi-based advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation said the Grievance Redressal Committee is “essentially a government censorship body” that would hear appeals against decisions by social media platforms to remove content or not, thereby “making bureaucrats the judges of our online free speech.”
“This will encourage platforms to remove/suppress any speech that is distasteful to the government or those exerting political pressure and increase government control and power as the government will effectively be able to decide what content must be shown by platforms,” it said.
Updated with comments from the Minister.