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Facebook, Google refuse to share public mail exchanges with EC


Citing privacy concerns, some social media platforms have refused to share the details of their correspondence with the Election Commission of India (ECI) with Right to Information (RTI) applicants.

Elections are coming to a close with results due on Thursday, but the social media companies, which had hard times dealing with their platforms being used for misinformation by political parties during campaign, now has to contend with another issue.

RTI applicants have sought details of correspondence between social media companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter and the EC over misinformation on social media during the general elections and content takedown requests, as per a report in ET.

Considering the wide reach of social media in the country, it was touted as the biggest Social Media Elections. To deal with these platforms being misused by political parties for spreading misinformation, EC had asked these companies to draft voluntary code of conduct and take down objectionable content either voluntarily or on requests.

In response to EC’s letter soliciting views of the companies in sharing in the content of the letter, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), which acts as a representative body for the social media companies,  reportedly wrote to the EC last week that the companies have deep reservations about sharing the correspondence over privacy issues.

EC had written a letter in early May seeking the views of social media companies on the matter.

While Facebook and Google were outright in declining the request to share the information with RTI applicants, others such as Twitter, ShareChat and ByteDance chose not to reply to the EC letter.

On its part, EC is yet to decide whether to share the information with RTI applicants. The general norm for EC in cases where the third party doesn’t agree, is to not comply with the request, as per a senior official with the Election Commission.

As per Section 11 of the RTI Act, the final decision rests with the public information officer even if the third party does not agree to make the information public. As per the procedure for disclosing third-party information, government entities should seek a written or oral submission on whether the information sought should be given.

The law clearly says that disclosure may be allowed if the public interest outweighs any possible harm or injury to the interests of such third-party. The only exception, in this case, is of trade or commercial secrets protected by law.

Activists have been pressing EC to disclose its correspondence with the social media companies because it impacts the consumers and is within his/her right to receive information. They are of the view that third-party exemption is not applicable because it does not involve any trade secret.

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