Global tech giants are feeling the heat all over the world in recent days. France has just levied a historic 268 million dollar fine on Google for favouring its own ads by adjusting algorithms. While the company has not accepted the allegations, it has agreed to pay the fine and also end some of its self-preferred tactics.
The French Competition Authority that imposed the fine maintained that Google had discriminated against the competition by sending business to its own services. This is just one of a series of measures being taken in Europe against the big tech giants. Facebook, for instance, is now facing anti-trust problems from regulators in the U.K. and other European countries. The European Commission has also launched investigations into Amazon, Google and Microsoft over the past few years. The U.K. has, on its part, initiated probes against Google and Apple after exiting the EU.
India is having its own tussles with tech giants. With the new information technology rules for social media intermediaries coming into effect from May 26, Big Tech is facing compliance issues here. The precise nature of the disputes may be different but the common thread is the feeling that regulatory issues are being flouted in all these countries.
In this country, social media companies are being asked to set up locally based nodal, grievance and compliance officers instead of forcing complainants to take their issues back to the U.S. headquarters of these companies. It is difficult to find fault with Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s argument that women facing harassment by having sexually explicit pictures posted online cannot be asked to take their complaints all the way to the U.S. There is no doubt a clear case for the global tech giants to abide by the new IT rules which are meant to help Indian consumers facing problems with this remote control approach.
While the latest news is that the tech giants have finally agreed to set up local compliance and complaint officials, it is amazing that these conditions were found to be so onerous. Even now Twitter has apparently appointed persons who will be located in the U.S. but will deal with Indian complaints. This does not comply with the new rules which stipulate that these officials must be residents of India. With such huge budgets as well as investments in this country, it is inexplicable that they cannot give Indian users the courtesy of setting up locally based complaint systems.
In this context, it is relevant to mention that India is a major market for global digital platforms. According to official data, currently, this country has 53 crore WhatsApp users, 41 crore Facebook subscribers, 21 crore Instagram users and 1.75 crore on the Twitter platform. The new rules apply to social intermediary companies that have over 50 lakh users and all these companies thus come within their ambit.
One of the key issue of concern is the need to identify the ‘first originator’ of messages that go viral and create serious communal as well as law and order issues. For instance, the case of innocent persons being lynched due to WhatsApp messages describing them as child-lifters is extremely tragic. There are also many cases of communal comment or morphed picture with violent content leading to riots or other disturbances. In such situations, neither Twitter nor WhatsApp can hide behind declarations of privacy being more important than the lives of innocent people.
Even the courts have not provided any relief to social media intermediaries as the Delhi High Court has recently directed them to follow the new IT rules.
One issue, however, needs to be clarified to provide some protection to employees of the social media platforms. This is the concept of a “safe harbour” being given to those who are not responsible for messaging on their platforms. In case the content is not brought down immediately due to various technical hitches, some safeguards are needed for social media employees to prevent unnecessary harassment.
The adoption of heavy-handed tactics towards these companies in some specific cases also needs to be eschewed completely. For instance, the allegations of trying to intimidate social media companies have some validity as police were sent to Twitter offices after the micro-blogging site had labelled BJP leader Sambit Patra’s tweets as manipulated media. The tweet was on an alleged Congress ‘toolkit’ that targeted the centre’s Covid-19 response. The police raid came two days after the government had asked the social media giant to remove the tag and was clearly meant to put pressure on the company.
Even so, there are legitimate grievances regarding the swift removal of certain content by social media companies. For instance, it has been pointed out that when Singapore complained about the term Singapore variant being used on Twitter, it was corrected within a day. But when India complained about the usage of the term Indian variant, the micro-blogging platform took a week to respond to the issue.
It is clear that social media platforms need to move faster to comply with Indian laws that are meant to protect Indian users of the social media intermediaries. It has been pointed out even by many in the domestic IT industry that compliance with local laws is being carried out in developed countries but not in emerging economies like India. It must also be noted that just as Indian companies comply with U.S. laws while operating in that country, a similar policy must be extended by American companies operating here. Big Tech has to adopt a rational approach while seeking to expand its footprint in the huge Indian market and thereby enhancing revenues and profitability. A policy of mutual respect by the powerful tech conglomerates is badly needed if they seek to play a long term role here.