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What Should Users Do to Protect 'Free Speech'? Experts Weigh in

We spoke to internet freedom activists and legal experts to understand the way forward for users and tech companies.

Updated
Policy
3 min read
India’s experience of free speech has, despite the Constitutional guarantee subject only to reasonable limitations, been far from luminous.
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While social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Google said that they aim to comply with the provisions of the IT rules, WhatsApp invoked the right to privacy ruling of the Supreme Court contending that “this breaks end-to-end encryption and infringes upon users’ fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of speech."

The new rules have been widely criticised, and challenged by at least six petitioners stating that the provisions seek to regulate all kinds of online platforms, violating the fundamental right to privacy and freedom of speech and expression.

But, with the tech companies aiming to comply with these rules, what is the way forward for users, how can they protect their right to privacy and freedom of expression.

The Quint spoke to internet freedom activists and legal experts to understand the way forward for users and tech companies.

'Tech Giants Should Challenge the IT Rules'

Tanmay Singh, of the Internet Freedom Foundation, believes that it is open to the tech companies to challenge the new IT Rules before constitutional courts in India.

"In the event that the company is of the view that the requests of a law enforcement agency are not in conformity with Indian law, it must push back against such orders, particularly because such orders are not furnished to the users, and users are not typically provided an opportunity to be heard. If technology companies are committed to protecting free speech in India, they must ensure that they fairly represent their users before law enforcement agencies," Singh said.

Can't Challenge IT Rules? 'Build Tech to Solve Data Privacy Issues'

Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, SFLC, is of the opinion that if social media giants comply with the IT rules they must at least collaborate and work together to build technologies that solve the problem of data privacy and freedom of expression.

Sugathan says that the use of AI in automated filtering or categorisation of content has thrown up some very unpleasant set of consequences, indicating instances of bias and discrimination against "innocent users as well as instances of suppression of free speech. Intermediaries should also have more algorithmic accountability to show the manner and method in which it moderates content."

Kazim Rizvi, Founding Director, of The Dialogue told The Quint that if any platform feels that the new rules might impinge upon online free speech then it is more important now than ever that they work towards making their community guidelines more robust and ensure their uniform implementation, irrespective of the stature of the user.

"The rules for platform regulation should be equal for all. Moderators from different classes and communities should be hired to ensure an inclusive ecosystem. "
Kazim Rizvi, Founding Director, The Dialogue
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What Can Users Do?

In addition to users limiting such information, users must proactively seek out more private and more secure alternatives to popular services, such as messaging apps, emails, internet browsers and search engines, Singh explains.

  • Users must also act responsibly when reporting instances of prohibited speech to the grievance redressal mechanisms of social media platforms.

  • Users must take care only to report speech that actually is prohibited by the laws, and not report views that are simply in disagreement with their political opinions. This will overwhelm the grievance redressal mechanisms, and not yield useful outcomes for freedom of speech.

Sugathan advises that users should proactively raise awareness if any content is blocked."As per the provisions of the IT Rules, in most cases the request for blocking or removal of content or user accounts will be routed through social media intermediaries."

It is important that platforms adhere with the global best practices for ensuring user privacy and free speech. The users should also flag content that violates the community guidelines and give consistent feedback to the platforms to ensure a safe online space.

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Never Underestimate The Power of Netizens

Singh told The Quint that the power of Indians was clearly visible during the net neutrality movement, where citizens mobilised through volunteership and community driven initiatives, such as sending more than one million email representations to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

"The end result was that TRAI declared its commitment to net neutrality. Lessons can be taken from past experience and applied to instances where citizen advocacy is needed."

It is important to note that in a tussle between the government and big tech, it is the users who are the ultimate sufferers.

Users should be proactive and ask for more accountability both from the government and social media giants.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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