There was an uproar this week as the Centre’s deadline for compliance with its new IT rules loomed large. Many anxious Indians – fearing that apps such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp would be banned – took to the online platforms to voice their concerns about freedom of speech and the implications of a potential ban.
The new IT Rules for digital media platforms includes the requirement to appoint a resident grievance officer as part of a larger grievance redressal mechanism, active monitoring of content on the platform, monthly compliance reports for Indian users, self-regulation mechanisms and also an oversight mechanism created by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
The future of these platforms in India remains uncertain. And while social media is rightly held responsible for several modern ills, there are many reasons why a ban or arbitrary regulation are not the right way to go when it comes to such tools of communication that have come to occupy a prime position in the lives of citizens today.
The second wave of the pandemic
With the second wave devastating the Indian healthcare system and leaving hundreds of thousands of Indians dead, it has been social media that has been used a platform for people to band together and find resources. In various cities and towns, users took to Twitter and Instagram to find hospital beds, oxygen and other medical supplies for their loved ones. During the time, several volunteers stepped forwarded to verify, share and amplify resources in a bid to save as many lives as possible.
With the second wave still ongoing and a third wave predicted, banning or regulating these platforms could actually cost lives. It would leave patients and their families stranded if things were to get as bad as they have been for the past few weeks.
Additionally, the wave pushed people back into the isolation of their homes. Schools, colleges and offices are still online. In dire times like these when people are struggling with mental health, a lack of human interaction and the inability to meet their loved ones, how would a social media ban help? Not to mention the added anxiety of a vaccine shortage. The country is already suffering enough and with these new rules, the government is only serving to worsen the situation.
We also cannot ignore the fact that these platforms have been a medium to share resources in this pandemic. When ministers themselves makes ludicrous claims like “there is no shortage of oxygen” when there clearly is, how can we trust them to keep our best interests in mind?
Protests and marginalised communities
Twitter and Facebook have been the go-to platforms for spreading awareness about social causes, sharing resources, fundraisers and amplifying protests. From the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests t0 the farmers’ protest and movements like #DalitLivesMatter, social media has played a role in helping amplify concerns across India and the world.
Pride Month, too, is around the corner and India is no stranger to queer phobia. The LGBTQIA+ community has been known to form safe spaces and sub-communities online to find fellow queer folks, form bonds, friendships and even relationships. A ban would push the community back into the shell of feeling alone, especially for those living with abusive or unsupportive families.
Some would argue that India will come up with its own alternatives – or already has, in case of the ‘Koo’ app. But let’s not forget that these platforms would have extremely limited reach. The ‘Koo’ app is reported to have 6 million users, incomparable to Twitter’s global reach of about 199 million.
Others would say that while Twitter and Facebook may go, international platforms like Discord and Snapchat will stay. This ignores the sheer popularity and usability of the first two, not to mention that other platforms don’t have the same features as them.
How can we expect alternative apps to be adequate replacements for such global platforms? We have seen how user-hostile CoWIN is, so how can we be sure that Indian alternatives will replicate the user-friendliness of Twitter and Facebook?
Twitter and Facebook are also used to promote small businesses, some even rely on them completely for reasons no other platform can replicate. Working from home, these businesses support families and hindering with their platform could wreck them. You can’t work from home if your home is wrecked.
Thus, it’s clear that banning social media in not an option as it would only disproportionately harm various citizens.
So should these platforms just comply with the government? That would, undoubtedly, infringe on people’s freedom of speech and peace of mind in the online space. If the platforms do comply, there is no guarantee that activities like sharing resources and criticising the government will go untouched.
This is not an attempt to glorify or praise any platform, but one to acknowledge its impact and relevance in our times. Social media companies have their own problems that need to be dealt with, like data privacy and cyber abuse. But the government, for once, needs to put the people first and understand that these new laws are not what we need. Especially not now.
While laws are needed to ensure user safety, they need to help uplift and safeguard users instead of empowering the government to regulate speech.
The rules seem to have arbitrary implications so far, but what is to say that they won’t be fully enforced? We saw how Jammu and Kashmir had partial internet for 18 months, and Kashmir none for seven consecutive months. Today the government wants to regulate online speech, tomorrow it could be regular conversation. And what will we do then?
Ananya Desai is an 18-year-old undergraduate student of BA Liberal Arts at Christ University, Bangalore. She is currently an editorial intern with The Wire.
Featured image: Reuters