November 1, 2022

The Twitter Acquisition

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, by threatening to upset the social media status quo, has kicked off a rambunctious but mostly healthy controversy in the US about the role of content moderation in the ”public square.” In a separate blog post, Milton Mueller explains how the circus-like struggle for Twitter spontaneously generated its own clown act.

India inserts the state into content moderation

As if India’s Intermediary liability regime was not complex enough, last week the government announced it is establishing “one or more” Grievance Appellate Committees (GAC) to review social media companies content moderation decisions. Each GAC “shall consist of a chairperson and two whole time members appointed by the Central Government.” Another clause in the amendment requires intermediaries to “respect all the rights accorded to the citizens under the Constitution”. Following last week’s amendments, users are invited by the government to complain about almost anything they like: content that “impersonates another person” or is “harmful to children,” “invasive of privacy, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic,” “insulting or harassing on the basis of gender,” “racially or ethnically objectionable,” “promoting enmity or inciting violence between different groups on the grounds of religion or caste,” “knowingly and intentionally deceives or misleads,” “misinformation, or false and untrue information”, “relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling”, “prevents investigation of any offence”, “threatens public order, the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign States or is insulting other nation.” Intermediaries have 72 hours to resolve these complaints. Intermediaries must acknowledge complaints about “patent, trademark, copyright or other proprietary rights infringement, or any matter “pertaining to the computer resources made available by the intermediary” within 24 hours, and resolve these within 15 days. Users who are “aggrieved by a decision of the Grievance Officer” may appeal to the GAC within a period of 30 days from date of communication with the grievance officer. GAC will resolve appeals within 30 days and may call upon people with “requisite qualifications, experience, expertise in subject matter”. Intermediaries are required to comply with each order of the GAC and upload reports on their website. The amendment does not state the penalties for non-compliance although the government has not ruled out punitive action.

The GAC(s) allegedly do not take away the decision-making powers of tech companies or courts, but they do insert the government directly into their content moderation practices. The supporters of this move have argued that GAC is necessary as social media platforms should not be allowed to choose “when to be a provider of public goods, and when a private messenger eligible for intermediary protections.” However, this view ignores the risks of GAC becoming a tool for censorship and political pressure. Digital rights activists are worried the GAC will “incentivise platforms to remove/suppress/label any speech unpalatable to the government”. Others point out that the GAC will enable the government to force platforms to carry content and reinstate accounts that are in violation of the platform’s rules and regulations. As the experiences of content moderation bodies like the Oversight Board and the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) reveal, establishing mechanisms for moderation or appeals against moderation requires resources. It is unclear if the Indian government will be able to marshall the expertise and resources required to undertake such an exercise in the three months it has given itself.

Lastly, it is worth bearing in mind that Section 79 of the Information Technology Act provides safe harbor for intermediaries, as long as they meet two conditions laid down under the parent act: 1) exercising due diligence and 2) observing guidelines prescribed by the Central government. The majority consensus appears to be that the Central government can shape the requirements of ‘due diligence’ under Section 79 by drafting guidelines that will have the binding force of law. However, others have argued that guidelines are only meant to be non-binding guidance and the government lacks the power to impose preconditions on internet intermediaries being granted safe harbor. Viewed from this perspective under India’s conditional immunity regime, the guidelines from 2011, 2021 and the recent amendments lack the force of law. With challenges to the IT Rules pending across various courts across India, the latest amendments are likely to be added to the list.

Saudi Arabia hurls a BRIC at the Dollar

During a recent state visit, the president of South Africa revealed that Saudi Arabia is joining a growing list of countries seeking BRICS membership. Mainstream media’s relative silence following the news is worrisome, and reveals an uncomfortable truth – that Saudi Arabia’s accession could make the growing Sino-Russian Financial Alliance viable. Saudi Arabia’s accession, which will be addressed at the 2023 BRICS meeting in South Africa, would have huge geopolitical ramifications.

US-Saudi relations are at an all-time low, due to the killing of Jamal Kashoggi, the Biden administration’s backtracked “Pariah State” policy, and the recent OPEC+ oil production cuts. That said, China and Saudi Arabia have explored Yuan-priced oil contracts for the past six years. Investors didn’t take them up due to various economic challenges of switching to yuan pricing. However, BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization nations may be willing to set aside their differences to ensure their economic success, especially in the face of continued dollar inflation. Saudi Arabia’s interest in joining BRICS underscores the importance of CBDC bundles as financial instruments if the BRICS nations continue to form more active de-dollarization coalitions.

What should the US policy response look like if China continues nudging Saudi Arabia to abandon the US Petro-dollar arrangement for a gold-backed Chinese digital Yuan? IGP will explore this arrangement’s broader political-economic implications in a forthcoming whitepaper.