This post is authored by Sachin Dhawan and Vignesh Shanmugam
The grievance appellate committee (‘GAC’) provision in the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2022 has garnered significant controversy. While it seeks to empower users to challenge the arbitrary moderation decisions of platforms, the provision itself has been criticised for being arbitrary. Lawyers, privacy advocates, technology companies, and other stakeholders have raised many concerns about the constitutional validity of the GAC, its lack of transparency and independence, and excessive delegated power.
Although these continuing discussions on the GAC are necessary, they do not address the main concerns plaguing content moderation today. Even if sufficient legal and procedural safeguards are incorporated, the GAC will still be incapable of resolving the systemic issues in content moderation. This fundamental limitation persists because “governing content moderation by trying to regulate individual decisions is [like] using a teaspoon to remove water from a sinking ship”.
Governments, platforms, and other stakeholders must therefore focus on: (i) examining the systemic issues which remain unaddressed by content moderation systems; and (ii) ensuring that platforms implement adequate structural measures to effectively reduce the number of individual grievances as well as systemic issues.
The limitations of the current content moderation systems
Globally, a majority of platforms rely on an individual case-by-case approach for content moderation. Due to the limited scope of this method, platforms are unable to resolve, or even identify, several types of systemic issues. This, in turn, increases the number of content moderation cases.
To illustrate the problem, here are a few examples of systemic issues which are unaddressed by content moderation systems: (i) coordinated or periodic attacks (such as mass reporting of users/posts) which target a specific class of users (based on gender, sexuality, race, caste, religion, etc.); (ii) differing content moderation criteria in different geographical locations; and (iii) errors, biases or other issues with algorithms, programs or platform design which lead to increased flagging of users/posts for content moderation.
Considering the gravity of these systemic issues, platforms must adopt effective measures to improve the standards of content moderation and reduce the number of grievances.
Addressing the structural concerns in content moderation systems
Several legal scholars have recommended the adoption of a ‘systems thinking’ approach to address the various systemic concerns in content moderation. This approach requires platforms to implement corporate structural changes, administrative practices, and procedural accountability measures for effective content moderation and grievance redressal.
Accordingly, revising the existing content moderation frameworks in India to include the following key ‘systems thinking’ principles would ensure fairness, transparency and accountability in content moderation.
- Establishing independent content moderation systems. Although platforms have designated content moderation divisions, these divisions are, in many cases, influenced by the platforms’ corporate or financial interests, advertisers’ interests, or political interests, which directly impacts the quality and validity of their content moderation practices. Hence, platforms must implement organisational restructuring measures to ensure that content moderation and grievance redressal processes are (i) solely undertaken by a separate and independent ‘rule-enforcement’ division; and (ii) not overruled or influenced by any other divisions in the corporate structure of the platforms. Additionally, platforms must designate a specific individual as the authorised officer in-charge of the rule-enforcement division. This ensures transparency and accountability from a corporate governance viewpoint.
- Robust transparency measures. Across jurisdictions, there is a growing trend of governments issuing formal or informal orders to platforms, including orders to suspend or ban specific accounts, take down specific posts, etc. In addition to ensuring transparency of the internal functioning of platforms’ content moderation systems, platforms must also provide clarity on the number of measures undertaken (and other relevant details) in compliance with such governmental orders. Ensuring that platforms’ transparency reports separately disclose the frequency and total number of such measures will provide a greater level of transparency to users, and the public at large.
- Aggregation and assessment of claims. As stated earlier, individual cases provide limited insight into the overall systemic issues present on the platform. Platforms can gain a greater level of insight through (i) periodic aggregation of claims received by them; and (ii) assessment of these aggregated claims for any patterns of harm or bias (for example: assessing for the presence of algorithmic/human bias against certain demographics). Doing so will illuminate algorithmic issues, design issues, unaccounted bias, or other systemic issues which would otherwise remain unidentified and unaddressed.
- Annual reporting of systemic issues. In order to ensure internal enforcement of systemic reform, the rule-enforcement divisions must provide annual reports to the board of directors (or the appropriate executive authority of the platform), containing systemic issues observed, recommendations for certain systemic issues, and protective measures to be undertaken by the platforms (if any). To aid in identifying further systemic issues, the division must conduct comprehensive risk assessments on a periodic basis, and record its findings in the next annual report.
- Implementation of accountability measures. As is established corporate practice for financial, accounting, and other divisions of companies, periodic quality assurance (‘QA’) and independent auditing of the rule-enforcement division will further ensure accountability and transparency.
Current discussions regarding content moderation regulations are primarily centred around the GAC, and the various procedural safeguards which can rectify its flaws. However, even if the GAC becomes an effectively functioning independent appellate forum, the systemic problems plaguing content moderation will remain unresolved. It is for this reason that platforms must actively adopt the structural measures suggested above. Doing so will (i) increase the quality of content moderation and internal grievance decisions; (ii) reduce the burden on appellate forums; and (iii) decrease the likelihood of governments imposing stringent content moderation regulations that undermine the free speech rights of users.