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मंदार शिंदे
Mandar Shinde

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Freedom of Speech with Accountability

Germany's parliament last week passed The Network Enforcement Act, commonly referred to in the media as the 'Facebook Law'. It requires social media companies , such as Facebook and Twitter, operating in Germany to delete or block any kind of hate speech, and racist or slanderous comments or posts that are 'obviously illegal', within 24 hours of their being reported by users. In case of content that is flagged as offensive, but which may not amount clearly to defamation or incitement to violence, the companies have up to seven days to act. Persistent failure to delete illegal content will attract fines ranging from € 5 million to € 50 million.

Under the law, the social network has to inform the complainant how it handled the case; failure to do so could result in additional fine of € 5 million on the company's chief representative in Germany. Companies will have to file public reports every six months on the number of complaints received, and how they have been addressed.

Many of us might feel that this is an effort of Government to suppress citizens' freedom of expression. However, the Justice Minister Heiko Maas explains, "With this law, we put an end to the verbal law of the jungle on the internet and protect the freedom of expression for all. We are ensuring that everyone can express their opinion freely, without being insulted or threatened. That is not a limitation, but a prerequisite for freedom of expression."

We are a generation that witnessed transition from a conventional (offline) model of mainstream media to a faster and more accessible social (online) model of personalized media. We all might agree on the benefits of this model, but at the same time we are also worried about its misuse, intentionally or otherwise. We can see false information being widely shared only due to lack of moderation or editing. That's the reason why newspapers are still considerd more authentic sources of information or news, as compared to social media, despite the limitations of speed and reach. I believe the difference lies in the ability of newspapers to moderate or edit the content to be digested by larger population at once.

This moderation or editing would have been toothless if it were not linked with accountability of the Editor under PRB Act in India. Just because a newspaper is subscribed or read by lakhs of people, does not give them freedom of publishing anything they want to and disown the after effects of content later. They have to be careful before publishing the content, not out of their own conscience but out of fear of penal action under law. This substantially restricts the volume of content as compared to non-moderated unedited personal content generated and published on social media platforms.

We, as responsible and aware citizens, have to make the choice now. Are we interested in quality content for our consumption? Or do we want the media platforms to be 'free' for any type of content? It is also important to note that, the above-mentioned law has not prohibited any user from posting any content. It has just introduced accountability factor for the platform owners. The companies would obviously oppose such restrictions, mainly because it would reduce the number of users due to fear of moderation or blocking. And if we look at the business model of these companies, numbers are the most important factor for their growth, or even for their survival. They are not bothered about the content and its effects on the public at large.

As the Justice Minister of Germany has rightly said, everyone should be able to express their opinion freely, without being insulted or threatened. And accountability of the content should be considered not as a limitation, but as a prerequisite for freedom of expression!

- Mandar Shinde 9822401246 (04 July 2017)


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