Centre for Internet & Society

Since the 1990s, internet usage has seen a massive growth, facilitated in part, by growing importance of intermediaries, that act as gateways to the internet. Intermediaries such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs), web-hosting providers, social-media platforms and search engines provide key services which propel social, economic and political development. However, these developments are also offset by instances of users engaging with the platforms in an unlawful manner. The scale and openness of the internet makes regulating such behaviour challenging, and in turn pose several interrelated policy questions.

In this report, we will consider one such question by examining the appropriate time frame for an intermediary to respond to a government content removal request. The way legislations around the world choose to frame this answer has wider ramifications on issues of free speech and ease of carrying out operations for intermediaries. Through the course of our research, we found, for instance:

  1. An one-size-fits-all model for illegal content may not be productive. The issue of regulating liability online contain several nuances, which must be considered for more holistic law-making. If regulation is made with only the tech incumbents in mind, then the ramifications of the same would become incredibly burdensome for the smaller companies in the market.
  2. Determining an appropriate turnaround time for an intermediary must also consider the nature and impact of the content in question. For instance, the Impact Assessment on the Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online cites research that shows that one-third of all links to Daesh propaganda were disseminated within the first one-hour of its appearance, and three-fourths of these links were shared within four hours of their release. This was the basic rationale for the subsequent enactment of the EU Terrorism Regulation, which proposed an one-hour time-frame for intermediaries to remove terrorist content.
  3. Understanding the impact of specific turnaround times on intermediaries requires the law to introduce in-built transparency reporting mechanisms. Such an exercise, performed periodically, generates useful feedback, which can be, in turn used to improve the system.
Corrigendum: Please note that in the section concerning 'Regulation on Preventing the Dissemination of Terrorist Content Online', the report mentions that the Regulation has been 'passed in 2019'. At the time of writing the report, the Regulation had only been passed in the European Parliament, and as of May 2020, is currently in the process of a trilogue. 
Disclosure: CIS is a recipient of research grants from Facebook India. 

Click to download the research paper by Torsha Sarkar (with research assistance from Keying Geng and Merrin Muhammed Ashraf; edited by Elonnai Hickok, Akriti Bopanna, and Gurshabad Grover; inputs from Tanaya Rajwade)

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