Are social media giants the upholders of ‘free speech’?

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Social media has revolutionized and democratized the way we communicate and voice our opinions. In a populous, vibrant democracy like India, where free speech is valued, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram have empowered many.

However, misinformation spread like wildfire in this digital age, hate speeches are peddled online, leading to riots or communal disharmony, sexist slurs thrown at women users- all of these making the social media space toxic.

Why Social Media Platform should be held liable?

The social media platforms are aware of these drawbacks, and they usually reason that they are working towards fixing these issues. However, one of the claims they typically come up with is that they only act as ‘intermediaries’ and, cannot be held accountable for what someone is posting or tweeting.

Global tech giants usually follow the predominant US legal standard, which is thought to be accepted worldwide. However, Indian laws are more stringent. In contradiction to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the US where ‘intermediaries’ are not held accountable for any content shared on their platform, Indian laws like Section 79 of the IT Act indicate that it is only in some circumstances that ‘intermediaries’ are not liable for the information published in their platforms. 

Most of these tech companies are have devised their own ‘Community Standards’ by which they say they govern their platforms. For instance, Twitter claims that its core values are grounded in the United States Bill of Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. The way to uphold freedom of speech may be radically different for these social media platforms and may not align with India’s national interest or Indian values.

The process by which these social media platforms decide whether some content violates their community standards is not transparent. It is also unclear whether they abide by government directions.

A few months back, Twitter flip-flopped when the Government of India asked them to block around 250 users, including some social activists and journalists associated with the farmer’s protest. The trending hashtag that read that Modi is responsible for farmer’s genocide, which the government objected to, was not put down. 

Similarly, none of the global social media platforms have abided by the government’s newly introduced Media Ethics Code. The new rules make it compulsory for these platforms to trace the originator of messages and, provide voluntary verification to establish user identity. 

How biased are these platform providers?

The duplicity of social media gets exposed when Twitter permanently suspended US President Trump’s account due to the risk of further incitement of violence under their ‘Glorification of Violence policy.’ Jack Dorsey himself claimed, it highlights their failure to “promote healthy conversation” where people can express their views.

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Though Dorsey admitted that Twitter needs to look critically at inconsistencies in their policy and, the need to be ‘transparent’ in their content moderation operations, nothing has changed.

It is noteworthy that the same standard does not seem to be followed in India since people regularly spread hatred on social media. Recently Bollywood actor Kangana Ranaut’s Twitter handle has been suspended for a tweet that allegedly incited violence. 

The freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the Indian Constitution is not absolute. It is subject to reasonable restrictions in the interest of the State’s security, friendly relations with the foreign States, public order, decency, morality, sovereignty, and integrity of India. Global social media giants should respect and adhere to Indian laws while operating in India. They cannot arm-twist their way into the Indian market in the name of acting as the sole guardians of free speech. 

      

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