Facebook and its (dis)contents

In 2016, Norwegian writer Tom Egeland, uploaded a post on Facebook, listing seven photographs that “changed the history of warfare”. The post featured the Pulitzer-winning image, ‘The Terror of War’, which depicts a naked nine-year-old running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Facebook deleted the post, and suspended Egeland’s account.

A Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, while reporting on the suspension, used the same image on its Facebook page. The newspaper soon received a message from Facebook demanding that the image be either removed, or pixelated. The editor-in-chief refused to comply in an open letter to Mark Zuckerburg, noting his concern at the immense power Facebook wielded over speech online. The issue escalated when several Norwegian politicians, including the Prime Minister, shared the image on Facebook, and were temporarily suspended from Facebook as well.

Facebook initially stated that it would be difficult to create a distinction between instances where a photograph of a nude child could be allowed. However, due to widespread censure, the platform eventually decided to reinstate the image owing to its “status as an iconic image of historical importance.”

This incident brought to light the tricky position Facebook finds itself in as it attempts to police its platform. Facebook addresses illegal and inappropriate content through a mix of automated processes, and human moderation. The company publishes guidelines about what content may not be appropriate for its platform, called its ‘Community Standards.’ Users can ‘flag’ content that they think does not meet the Community Standards, which is then reviewed by moderators. Moderators may delete, ignore, or escalate flagged content to a senior manager. In some cases, the user account may be suspended, or asked to submit identity verification.

As evident from the ‘Terrors of War’ incident, Facebook has often come under fire for supposed ‘wrong’ moderation of content, as well as opacity in how its community review process comes to be applied. It has been argued that content that is evidently in violation of Community Standards is often not taken down, while content that should be safe is censored. For instance, Facebook courted controversy again, when it was accused of blocking content and accounts documenting persecution of the Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar.

Closer home as well, multiple instances of Facebook’s questionable moderation practices have come to light. In October 2017, Raya Sarkar, a law student based out of the United States, had created what came to be called, the List. The List named over 70 prominent academics that had been accused of sexual harassment. The approach proved extremely controversial, sparking debates about due process, and the failure of institutional mechanisms to address harassment. Facebook blocked her account for seven days, which proved equally contentious. Sarkar’s account was restored only after Facebook staff in Palo Alto were contacted directly. Similar instances have been reported of seemingly arbitrary application of the Community Standards. In many cases accounts have been suspended, and content blocked without notice, explanation or recourse.

Content moderation inherently involves much scope for interpretation and disagreement. Factors such as context, as well as cultural differences, render it a highly subjective exercise. Algorithms don’t appear to have reached sufficient levels of sophistication, and there exist larger issues associated with automated censoring of speech. Human moderators are by all accounts burdened by the volume and the psychologically taxing nature of the work, and therefore prone to error. The way forward should therefore be first, to ensure that transparent mechanisms exist for recourse against the removal of legitimate speech.

In light of the ‘Terror of War’ incident, Facebook responded by updating its community standards. In a statement, it said that it would allow graphic material that would be “newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards.” Leaked moderator guidelines in 2017 opened the company up to granular public critique of its policies. There is evidently scope for Facebook to be more responsive and consultative in how it regulates speech online.

In June 2017, Facebook reached 2 billion monthly users, making it the largest social network, and a platform for digital interaction without precedent. It has announced plans to reach 5 billion. With the influence it now wields, it must also embrace its responsibility to be more transparent and accountable to its users.

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NDTV INDIA BAN: A CASE OF REGULATORY OVERREACH AND INSIDIOUS CENSORSHIP?

In a highly contentious move, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (‘MIB’) issued an order banning the telecast of the Hindi news channel ‘NDTV India’ on 9th November, 2016. The MIB imposed this ‘token penalty’ on NDTV India following the recommendation of an Inter-Ministerial Committee (‘IMC’). The IMC had found the channel liable for revealing “strategically sensitive information” during the coverage of Pathankot terrorist attacks on 4th January, 2016. The ban has, however, been put on hold by the MIB after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a writ petition filed by NDTV India against the ban.

The order passed by the MIB raises some important legal issues regarding the freedom of speech and expression of the press. Since the news channels are constantly in the race for garnering Television Rating Points, they may sometimes overlook the letter of the law while covering sensitive incidents such as terrorist attacks. In such cases, regulation of the media becomes necessary. However, it is tricky to achieve an optimum balance between the various concerns at play here – the freedom of expression of the press and the people’s right to information, public interest and national security.

In this post, we discuss the background of the NDTV India case and the legal issues arising from it. We also analyze and highlight the effects of governmental regulation of the media and its impact on the freedom of speech and expression of the media.

NDTV Case – A Brief Background:

On January 29, 2016, the MIB had issued a show cause notice to NDTV India alleging that their coverage of the Pathankot military airbase attack had revealed vital information which could be used by terror operators to impede the counter-operations carried by the security forces. The notice also provided details regarding the alleged sensitive information revealed by NDTV India.

In its defence, the channel claimed that the coverage had been “balanced and responsible” and that it was committed to the highest levels of journalism. The channel also stated that the sensitive information allegedly revealed by the channel regarding critical defence assets and location of the terrorists was already available in the public domain at the time of reporting. It was also pointed out that other news channels which had reported on similar information had not been hauled up by the MIB.

However, the MIB, in its order dated January 2, 2016, held that NDTV India’s coverage contravened Rule 6(1)(p) of the Programme and Advertising Code (the ‘Programme Code’ or ‘Code’) issued under the Cable TV Network Rules, 1994 (‘Cable TV Rules’). In exercise of its powers under the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 (‘Cable TV Act’) and the Guidelines for Uplinking of Television Channels from India, 2011, the MIB imposed a ‘token penalty’ of a day’s ban on the broadcast of the channel.

Rule 6(1)(p) of the Programme Code:

Rule 6 of the Code sets out the restrictions on the content of programmes and advertisements that can be broadcasted on cable TV. Rule 6(1)(p) and (q) were added recently. Rule 6(1)(p) was introduced after concerns were expressed regarding the real-time coverage of sensitive incidents like the Mumbai and Gurdaspur terror attacks by Indian media. It seeks to prevent disclosure of sensitive information during such live coverage that could act as possible information sources for terror operators.

Rule 6(1)(p) states that: “No programme should be carried in the cable service which contains live coverage of any anti-terrorist operation by security forces, wherein media coverage shall be restricted to periodic briefing by an officer designated by the appropriate Government, till such operation concludes.

Explanation: For the purposes of this clause, it is clarified that “anti-terrorist operation” means such operation undertaken to bring terrorists to justice, which includes all engagements involving justifiable use of force between security forces and terrorists.”

Rule 6(1)(p), though necessary to regulate overzealous media coverage especially during incidents like terrorist attacks, is vague and ambiguous in its phrasing. The term ‘live coverage’ has not been defined in the Cable TV Rules, which makes it difficult to assess its precise meaning and scope. It is unclear whether ‘live coverage’ means only live video feed of the operations or whether live updates through media reporting without visuals will also be considered ‘live coverage’.

Further, the explanation to Rule 6(1)(p) also leaves a lot of room for subjective interpretation. It is unclear whether the expression “to bring terrorists to justice” implies the counter operations should result in fatalities of the terrorists or if the intention is to include the coverage of the trial and conviction of the terrorists, if they were caught alive. If so, it would be highly impractical to bar such coverage under Rule 6(1)(p). The inherent vagueness of this provision gives wide discretion to the governmental authorities to decide whether channels have violated the provisions of the Code.

In this context, it is important to highlight that the Supreme Court had struck down Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act, 2000 in the case of Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India, on the ground of being vague and overboard. The Court had held that the vague and imprecise nature of the provision had a chilling effect on the freedom of speech and expression. Following from this, it will be interesting to see the stand of the Supreme Court when it tests the constitutionality of Rule 6(1)(p) in light of the strict standards laid down in Shreya Singhal and a spate of other judgments.

Freedom of Speech under Article 19(1)(a)

The right of the media to report news is rooted in the fundamental right to free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. Every right has a corresponding duty, and accordingly, the right of the media to report news is accompanied by a duty to function responsibly while reporting information in the interest of the public. The freedom of the media is not absolute or unbridled, and reasonable restrictions can be placed on it under Article 19(2).

In the present case, it can be argued that Rule 6(1)(p) fails to pass the scrutiny of Article 19(2) due to inherent vagueness in the text of the provision. However, the Supreme Court may be reluctant to deem the provision unconstitutional. This reluctance was demonstrated for instance, when the challenge to the constitutionality of the Cinematograph Act, 1952 and its attendant guidelines, for containing vague restrictions in the context of certifying films, was dismissed by the Supreme Court. The Censor Board has used the wide discretion available to it for placing unreasonable restrictions while certifying films. If the Supreme Court continues to allow such restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression, the Programme Code is likely to survive judicial scrutiny.

Who should regulate?

Another important issue that the Supreme Court should decide in the present case is whether the MIB had the power to impose such a ban on NDTV India. Under the current regulatory regime, there are no statutory bodies governing media infractions. However, there are self-regulatory bodies like the News Broadcast Standards Authority (NBSA) and the Broadcasting Content Complaint’s Council (BCCC).The NBSA is an independent body set up by the News Broadcasters Association for regulating news and current affairs channels. The BCCC is a complaint redressal system established by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation for the non-news sector and is headed by retired judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts. Both the NBSA and the BCCC regularly look into complaints regarding violations of the Programme Code. These bodies are also authorized to issue advisories, condemn, levy penalties and direct channels to be taken off air if found in contravention of the Programme Code.

The decision of the MIB was predicated on the recommendation made by IMC which comprises solely of government officials with no journalistic or legal background. The MIB should have considered referring the matter to a regulatory body with domain expertise like the NBSA that addresses such matters on a regular basis or at least should have sought their opinion before arriving at its decision.

Way Forward

Freedom of expression of the press and the impartial and fair scrutiny of government actions and policies is imperative for a healthy democracy. Carte blanche powers with the government to regulate the media as stipulated by Cable TV Act without judicial or other oversight mechanisms pose a serious threat to free speech and the independence of the fourth estate.

The imposition of the ban against NDTV India by the MIB under vague and uncertain provisions can be argued as a case of regulatory overreach and insidious censorship. The perils of such executive intrusion on the freedom of the media will have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech. This can impact the vibrancy of the public discourse and the free flow of information and ideas which sustains a democracy. Although the governmental decision has been stayed, the Supreme Court should intervene and clarify the import of the vague terms used in the Programme Code to ensure that the freedom of the press is not compromised and fair and impartial news reporting is not stifled under the threat of executive action.

I&B Ministry forms Committee to regulate content in Government Advertising

Written By Joshita Pai

Following the direction by the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an order last month establishing a three member committee to effectuate the Supreme Court Guidelines on Content Regulation of Government Advertising. Government advertising refers to the use of public funds by ruling parties to project their achievements or make announcements about upcoming initiatives. These advertisements however, have occasionally been politically motivated, demonstrating the need for the guidelines issued by the Court in the Common Cause judgment. The guidelines were issued on the basis of a report submitted by a Court-appointed committee on the issue of use of public funds in government advertising.

According to the recent MIB order, the Supreme Court Guidelines will function as a stopgap arrangement until a legislation comes into force to regulate the content projected in government sponsored advertisements. The body set up by the Ministry will address complaints from the general public on violation of the guidelines prescribed by  the Court. The Committee will be assisted by a member secretary, and will be set up parallelly at the state level, appointed by the respective State Governments. The three member body will be responsible for implementation of the SC guidelines on regulating content in government advertising.

Government Advertising

Government advertising is often regarded as informative and in public interest since it facilitates circulation of necessary information with respect to upcoming welfare schemes or the progress of government initiatives. However, advertisements of this nature are often used gain political mileage. This practice has been criticized for several reasons, ranging from arbitrary use of public funds to non-objective presentation of information. Colourful presentation of information on the part of the government does not foster public interest. The right to freedom of speech and expression exercisable by the government is not dispensable but Article 19 also grants the right to information, and accurate information at that, which stands in equal measure. Balancing conflicting interests in this regard is a herculean task.

Government advertising, unlike political advertising which also often transcends permissible boundaries, is sponsored by the use of public funds that governments in power have access to. According to the Election Commission of India, the expenditure on government sponsored advertisements is incurred by the public exchequer and is contrary to the spirit of free and fair election, as the party in power gets an undue advantage over other parties and candidates. The practice has beckoned the need for an oversight authority and a set of workable standards to regulate such advertising, which have been recommended time and again, most recently in the Law Commission Report on Electoral Reforms. Moreover, the Election Commission too has assessed the mushrooming phenomenon of advertising by existing governments. In furtherance of these observations, the ECI recommended that advertisements for achievements of existing governments, either Central or State, in any manner, should be prohibited for a period of six months prior to the date of expiry of the term of the House.

The Guidelines issued by the Supreme Court     

The case that brought about the guidelines was set in motion when Common Cause and the Centre for Public Interest Litigation sought to restrain the Union of India and State Governments from using public funds on government advertising. The petitioners emphasized that the object of these advertisements is generally to promote functionaries and candidates of a political party. One of the primary objections raised in the case was that such advertising is generally politically motivated. The petition called for the Court to issue comprehensive guidelines on usage of public funds on such advertisements. Giving due weightage to the plea, the Court appointed a committee to examine best practices in order to demarcate permissible advertising during campaigning from politically motivated advertisements. The committee submitted its report to the Supreme Court in September 2014 which contained a set of guidelines on content regulation in government advertising. These guidelines will be implemented by the committee established by the MIB.  

According to the Guidelines, government advertising “includes any message, conveyed and paid for by the government for placement in media such as newspapers, television, radio, internet, cinema and such other media but does not include classified advertisements; and includes both copy (written text/audio) and creatives (visuals/video/multimedia) put out in print, electronic, outdoor or digital media.”

The guidelines further suggest that government advertisements should be politically neutral and should not include photographs of political leaders unless it is essential, in which case only the photographs of the Prime Minister/Chief Minister or President/Governor may be used.  The enforceability of the guidelines has been left to the three member body which shall recommend actions accordingly.

According to the Guidelines, regulation of content should be guided by five fundamental principles:

  1.  Advertising Campaigns to be related to Government responsibilities: The content of the government advertisement should be relevant to the government’s obligations and the rights of the citizens. 
  2. Advertisement materials should be presented in an objective, fair, and accessible manner and be designed to meet the objectives of the campaign: The content and the design of the advertisement should be executed after exercise of due care and should not present previous policies of the government as new ones.
  3. Advertisement materials should be objective and not directed at promoting political interests of ruling party: The advertisement should steer clear of making political arguments and should be neutral in nature and should not seek to influence public support.
  4. Advertisement Campaigns must be justified and undertaken in an efficient and cost-effective manner: Optimum use of public funds and cost-effective advertisements reflect a need-based advertising approach
  5. Government advertising must comply with legal requirements and financial regulations and procedures: The advertisements must be compliant with existing laws such as election laws and ownership rights.

Government advertisements are issued on several occasions. They are issued to present the completion of a successful tenure, to commemorate anniversaries of people and to announce public welfare projects. In these instances, the object of the advertisement can be achieved with objective presentation of information. The committee set up singularly seeks to ensure that the right of the government to use funds to sponsor advertisements is not misused.  

TRAI releases Regulations enforcing Net Neutrality, prohibits Differential Pricing

Written by Siddharth Manohar

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has come out with a set of regulations explicitly prohibiting differential pricing for data services in India.

3. Prohibition of discriminatory tariffs.— (1) No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.

(2) No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content

TRAI recently concluded a public consultation process regarding differential pricing in data services (resources). The consultation paper covered all differently-priced or zero-rated services offered through data. The process has witnessed tremendous public participation, with a spirited campaign by Internet activists (Savetheinternet.in) and a counter-campaign by Facebook where it garnered support through users by using the narrative of connecting those who have no access (https://www.facebook.com/savefreebasics).

CCG submitted a formal response as part of this process, which you can read here, and filed an additional counter-comment signed by ten different civil society and research organizations.

The consultation process also involved a public discussion on the questions raised, where the usual suspects were all present – telecom companies arguing for differential pricing, and internet activists against. Also present were startup- and user- representatives.

Facebook’s telecom partner for carrying the Free Basics platform in India —Reliance Communications — was then instructed by TRAI to put a hold on rolling out Free Basics until they came up with a clear position on differential pricing and net neutrality. The regulator later confirmed that they received a compliance report to this effect as well. Facebook had been aggressively pursuing its campaign to collect support in favour of its platform for the entire duration of the public consultation.

TRAI has clarified that these regulations ‘may’ be reviewed after a two year period, or at an earlier time as decided by the Authority. An exception to the prohibition has also been included, to account for emergency services and services offered during ‘times of grave public emergency’. An additional exception is that of closed networks which charge a special tariff for their usage.

[We will shortly update the piece with more analysis of the regulations]