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Does social media need regulation?

Social media has captivated India to an almost unimaginable degree. Wherever you look, you’re likely to find someone chatting on WhatsApp or rapidly scrolling through Instagram, maybe even stopping to have a peek at videos. This is even more apparent with the youngsters of the country. But with all that connectivity, there are always big doubts cast on the whole ‘free’ nature of social media. At present, one can get away with most things without necessarily facing severe repercussions.

This has brought forth the question of whether this freedom needs to be drastically limited. Do the authorities need to get involved and regulate what people are saying or if they’re breaking any cyber rules? Or does all that restriction just destroy the freshness of internet that people around the world adore? These questions have polarised the masses for years and continue to do so.

Fake news during elections and the lynchings caused by these have consistently made the news. The government responded to these incidents by presenting a draft policy which would force online platforms to remove a variety of content; anything which the authorities deem to affect the “sovereignty and integrity of India”. The platforms raised concern over this move restricting free speech on the internet.

And while fake news has been covered the most extensively, it’s only one of many issues associated with social media. The lack of repercussions has led numerous incidents of people bullying, harassing or ‘trolling’; which can be roughly defined as leaving an insulting message online. There is no censorship online, which allows individuals to get away with abuses and insults based on religion, gender, class, among others.

The worst-hit from these are often the more well-known personalities. Each time Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli fails to perform, trolls emerge online to inexplicably blame his wife Anushka Sharma. Actors are also bombarded with comments where they are body-shamed or actresses are told that only men can play the lead in films.

One of the most recent cases of this was when a mainstream Bollywood film, ‘Kabir Singh’, was panned by popular critics Rajeev Masand and Sucharita Tyagi. Both Masand and Tyagi faced a storm of abuses on their video reviews posted online from the audience who liked the film, and most did not even talk about the movie. This instance shows how a lot of people don’t seem to think twice before hurling abuses and insults on the internet.

Apart from trolling, there is also the big challenge of tackling copyright infringement. The EU recently passed Article 17, which would force platforms such as Facebook to moderate all of its content to prevent copyright. This could mean the removal of a major part of existing content. For example, YouTube might have to take down mashups, music covers etc.

In India, many aren’t aware of the copyright laws involving social media. People download content from the internet and publish it on social media platforms without realising that they are infringing on the rights of the owner of the content. YouTube, in particular, has to regularly take down videos which infringe. There is a pressing need to raise awareness to at least ensure that only ‘labelled for reuse’ content is recycled or consent is procured from the owner.

A Social India approached one of India’s most prominent cyber law and media law experts Dr. Karnika Seth to discuss the regulation of social media. When asked if social media should be regulated, she stated: “Yes, to some extent. The rules of the offline world should apply with equal force in the online world too – saying no to abuse, identity theft, harassment, bullying, stalking, trolling indecency etc.”

Image source: Dr. Karnika Seth

She also felt that trolling needed to be tackled and stated that anybody found guilty of certain offences can be punished. “If a person harasses, intimidates another or spreads hate speech for expressing one’s opinion, it is illegal and punishable. On being reported, a criminal action can be lodged.” She added that expressing a difference of opinion is separate from abusing and harassing another who holds opposite views.

Regarding copyright infringement laws, she urged the need for more awareness. Basic rules and laws must be instilled in the masses. “Such awareness is essential and terms of use must be read before using any content on social media.”

In reference to the passing of Article 17 in the EU, she reiterated the importance of being aware that copyright infringement is illegal in India too. In the future, measures might be taken to better protect copyright. “Industry might self-regulate and introduce preventive measures to stop copyright infringement, use encryption and other technologies or Digital Rights Management (DRM) software in this regard.”

The rise of the digital age has brought with it freedom. But is it fair to protect that freedom even if the price to pay is widespread fake stories, a barrage of abuses and insults and people freely using others’ intellectual property, and the only way to get caught is being reported? If not censorship, a minimum level of regulation feels imminent considering the rate at which Indian internet users are growing.

However, striking a balance is of paramount importance. The authorities need to keep up with the constantly growing technology and come up with ways to tackle the issues without hampering the experience. Social media has provided the people of India a new way to live, but the need of the hour is to harness its positive aspects and flesh out the negatives without drastically interfering with the functionality.

(Featured image graphic credits: Anweshak Tejendra)

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