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Does India need a social media watchdog?

20-May-2013
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Does India need a social media watchdog?

Social media has become the breeding ground for controversies these days. Considering this a cause of concern, government officials have started getting into action. The Mumbai police recently started a social media lab to understand the pulse of netizens.

Trained police officers, currently associated with the lab, promise not to interfere with people’s privacy, but use the excuse of the need for better policing for sifting through people’s posts. The focus is on better governance, they say.

In another move of a similar kind, MouthShut, a leading online community for consumer reviews, recently filed a Writ Petition under Article 32 of the Constitution of India before the Honourable Supreme Court, inter-alia for quashing the Information Technology Rules (Intermediaries Guidelines), 2011 and declaring them violative of Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India.

The petition pleads to the Supreme Court that the IT Rules, 2011 should be struck down because they are so vague that it cannot be predicted with certainty as to what is prohibited and what is permitted. A consequence of this law would be the delegation of essential executive function to private parties like MouthShut to censor and restrict free speech of citizens or else face legal challenge for user’s content.

Commenting on the issue, Faisal Farooqui, Chief Executive Officer of MouthShut said, “Our aim with this move is to nullify the law because we believe, as citizens, everyone has a right to express themselves on the internet. The question whether we need a social media watchdog is debatable one. I think such decisions should come into force only when all the stake holders of the industry come together and effectively think over it. Personally, I don’t think we need a social media watchdog.”

Digital experts speak
According to Madan Sanglikar, Co-Founder and Managing Director, ad2c, every country needs a watchdog. “A lot communication and commerce is now shifting to social media and malafide intentions can affect personal and business interests. However, the trick is to be a watchdog and not a moral policing agency.”

Venkat Mallik, President, Tribal DDB and Rapp India, also thinks we need a social media watchdog. “Social media sits at the borderline of private and public space. While on one hand, it can be a very private space, there are parts of it that are often intended to influence the sentiment of people En Masse. This kind of power of public influence needs to be monitored and controlled – just in case it is misused. However, the maturity with which that watchdog deals with the information is the bigger issue.”
 
“The stated purpose of the social media lab seems quite noble but the devil may be in the way it gets used. Irresponsible action by the police and other authorities based on information gathered through social media will not be acceptable to the people. In the early stages of this process, while everyone is learning how to deal with this new age, there will be a few tensions and face-offs between people and authorities before the issue settles into equilibrium,” added Mallik.

Will this affect brand communication plans?
Sanglikar believes that consumers have embraced social media as a communication platform already and will continue do so even in future. “The presence of a watchdog will help in keeping only the genuine issues alive and any offensive or criminal activities will be under check. Such a move will absolutely not affect brand communications, he said. “In fact, brands will like to be in a space where crime or wrongful usage is under check,” said Sanglikar.

Mallik is of a similar opinion. “At this stage, I cannot visualise this digital lab and monitoring of social media having an impact on brand communication. However, if the police start interfering beyond the realms of normalcy, we may see an impact on brand communication as well. If this digital lab is actually used as a way to understand the pulse of the people and to understand the public’s point of view about key emerging issues, then it can be a significant asset,” he concluded.
 

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