Centre for Internet & Society

With Congress and BJP hammering away at each other in the ongoing assembly contests that will set the stage for national polls next year, the Election Commission wants to make sure social media and online platforms run by Google, Facebook and Twitter are not used to breach the code of conduct that governs candidates and parties. The commission's key concerns relate to malicious content and exceeding the campaign expense limit.

The article by Ajmer Singh was published in the Economic Times on November 25, 2013. Sunil Abraham is quoted.

The Election Commission, which summoned the social media companies to a meeting last Monday, directed them to cooperate in monitoring content. They were asked to set up a mechanism that would help prevent posting of material that could vitiate the election atmosphere, according to Election Commission officials who are aware of the development and didn't want to be named. If such content is posted, the mechanism should also allow for its speedy removal, they said.

"It is difficult to monitor and track content on social media or Internet sites, since the servers are based out of the US," said one of the officials cited above. "EC has asked social media giants to cooperate for compliance with the code of conduct, pre-certification of advertisement on the web and monitoring malicious content."

The companies declined to comment and referred ET to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) for a response. "It was a sensitising meeting on the code of conduct with some legal and corporate affairs representatives of Internet firms which are members of IAMAI," said Subho Roy, president of the grouping.

"The Election Commission representatives explained to us the model code of conduct, its importance during the last 48 hours of the election, the pre-certified advertisements and why they were important in accounting of the candidate's expenses. They also wanted to understand from us what are the current methods of removing illegal content from websites under existing laws. The Election Commission also assured us that at no point there would be any attempt to censor social media," said Subho Roy, IAMAI president and one of those present at the November 18 meeting.

The commission has classified social media into five types - collaborative projects such as Wikipedia; blogs and micro blogs such as Twitter; content communities such as Google-owned YouTube; social networking sites such as Facebook; and games and apps.

"We have received many complaints about misuse of social media platforms, and it is becoming unmanageable. So all these sites shall now be strictly monitored and asked to comply with EC's instructions," an official said.

According to Election Commission guidelines, "Legal provisions relating to election campaigning apply to social media in the same manner in which they apply to any other form of election campaigning using any other media."

The social media companies will also need to make sure that any advertising they carry conforms to the rules.

An official said social media companies have been asked to "keep an eye on any breach of model code of conduct, in respect of any party or candidate who posts hate messages or creates hatred or tension between different castes, communities, religions, etc. The social media giants have been directed to ensure pre-certification of advertisement on web/social media (clearance of political advertisement by a committee before being displayed in social media/web by any registered party or by any group or association)".

An executive at one of the companies said it would be difficult to keep a check on what was being posted as this may count as a breach of privacy, besides being impinging on other rules.
"It is a highly contentious issue and (it's) impossible to monitor malicious content," said this person who didn't want to be named. "The diktat issued by EC can't be implemented since it overrides the Information Technology Act. We all comply with the IT Act, and the model code of conduct is not for us but for political parties and candidates."

A privacy advocate pointed out the difficulties that the social media companies may face when it comes to implementing the Election Commission guidelines.

"This is what we call proactive censorship or proactive monitoring and may interfere with the intermediary's immunity from liability, when they have no actual knowledge of content. It may be in conflict with provisions of the IT Act (Section 79) and could have serious privacy implications," said Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet Society, and an expert on privacy laws. "Pre-censorship is required by Indian law and courts only for cinema that is exhibited in theatres. In the case of books, this type of censorship has been held to be unconstitutional. This case is worse because it is private pre-censorship of user-generated content that is not subject to judicial review."

The Election Commission had, on October 25, asked candidates to provide information about social media accounts and expenditure on online campaigns. It had clarified that the provisions of the code of conduct would apply to the Internet, including social media websites.

A Congress member said social media accounts would be difficult to police as these may be in the name of individuals and have no direct links to parties or candidates.

"The biggest problem is that candidates or political parties may not be operating their Twitter handles or posting advertisements on Facebook or the web, but (through) an unknown Internet army, which builds up a social media campaign and posts hate messages," the person said. A senior Congress MP, who didn't want to be named, suggested that such efforts were extensive on behalf of BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat.

"More than 90% of Twitter traffic is emanating from Rajkot, Ahmedabad and Baroda, all in Gujarat," this person said. "Who are these people, campaigning and managing an obnoxious campaign?"

BJP denied that its Internet campaigns were in violation of any Election Commission guidelines.
"There is no truth in these allegations and Congress has little understanding of this," said Arvind Gupta, who heads BJP's IT cell. "Narendra Modi has a pan-India presence and is a popular leader, they are just jealous of him. We have a social media cell, which acts responsibly and complies with guidelines."

Election Commission officials said social media companies have been asked to resolve issues related to malicious content and provide details of serious infringements. The ministry of communications and information technology has also been asked to suggest ways of tackling the matter.