EC's poll rules have social media companies in a knot

BENGALURU: Social media companies, including big ones such as Google, Facebook and ByteDance, have raised concerns about how to proceed with the Election Commission of India's (EC's) 'voluntary' rules on misinformation and political advertising on social media, during the upcoming state government elections.

The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), which is a go-between for technology companies, is in the process of finalising a separate takedown process with the EC for state elections in Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Delhi later this year, sources aware of the development said. Tech companies, including homegrown ShareChat, Twitter and Bigo Technology, had signed up for a first-of-its-kind Voluntary Code of Ethics before the general elections earlier this year.

ET reported earlier this month that the EC wants social media to replicate the Code adopted for the general elections during the upcoming state polls.

The Code finalised for the general elections in March empowered EC officials to send takedown notices on content deemed misinformation, and political advertisement, during the mandatory 48-hour silent period before voting begins. The purpose of the Code, according to the EC, was to safeguard platforms against misuse.

Last week, social media companies had expressed concern over state-level election commission officers sending takedown notices, during a conference call with the IAMAI officials. These companies expressed concern that too many takedown notices from multiple officials could cause confusion, as against the centralised process that was followed during the general elections.

"Social media companies must recognise takedown requests from local, state- and district-level EC officials. However, there should be transparency on the requests being sent and officials should not send frivolous takedown requests," said Apar Gupta, director at Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.

"The primary problem is, there is no regulatory framework and the entire process reeks of a private negotiation."

The technology companies are also worried that EC might extend these rules to local polls such as municipal and panchayat elections, according to sources privy to the matter. "Broadly, most of the companies don't want to do training for state EC officials on how to spot misinformation, how to report them, send notices; nor do they want to be answerable to them. They are worried how they will be able to say 'no' to takedown requests from state-level EC officials," a person familiar with the matter said. "The problem is there is no law or clarity, therefore so much confusion."

Twitter and ShareChat declined to comment. Emails sent to the Election Commission, IAMAI, Facebook, Google, ByteDance and Bigo Technology remained unanswered as of press time Monday.

A few social media companies have told the IAMAI that that the restrictions on political advertisement during the 48-hours prior to voting day should be extended to other internet companies, and not restricted only to them. One of the technology companies, according to a source, wants rules to become stricter to ensure compliance. These rules are voluntary, as the title of the Code suggests.