The new guidelines introduced by the Centre for regulating Internet functioning are an improvement on what existed in that form since 2011. Several safeguards are brought forward in the Information Technology (intermediary guidelines and digital media ethics code) Rules 2021 to ensure that people’s fundamental rights are protected. Obviously, such regulations are also going to stonewall the freewheeling style of social media. It remains to be seen how things will change for the better.

Freedom without regulations is unacceptable even in a democratic set-up. It was to the luck of the social media that it could hold forth with a lot of freedom – unlike the established media that often faced muscle-flexing from the government. So much so, social media became the principal source for the people to have access to hidden information, be it hidden by the government or by individuals or other entities.

Complaints however are that several of the stipulations are unconstitutional and would stand in the way of free expression. Digital news and OTT video content providers are apparently the main target of government regulations also for the reason that these have large viewership almost matching with that of television among the urban populace. Those like WhatsApp, Telegram, Twitter and Signal have emerged as the principal source of individual-level information-sharing in recent years. A registration system, under the ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which has been brought into force for online news media was long overdue. Yet, how these will impact the free flow of information even with good intention is a big question. Obviously, several such news and video sites have gone overboard. Rights of women have been trampled in gay abandon, many were shamed and some even ended their lives.

As long as regulations are done with a fair mind-set, the public will encourage and appreciate such controls. At the same time, if the government uses such regulations to muzzle dissent, the scenario would change. It is also worth a watch how courts will take a view of the new changes.

A guideline demand of publishers of news and current affairs including aggregators like Google is to publish a monthly compliance report listing the grievances they received and what they have done to correct wrongs. Also, if a social media content is found to be offensive by the government or court, the entity that uploaded it will have to pull it down within 36 hours; and within 24 hours if it is sexually offensive content. There cannot be any reservations on such regulations; nor on the one relating to national security.

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