Micro-blogging site Twitter has raised some serious concerns about the new IT Rules of the Indian government for social and digital media platforms. Although Twitter said it will “strive to comply with applicable law in India” to keep its service available, the company added that it was concerned by recent events regarding its employees in India, the intimidation tactics by the police and the potential threat to freedom of expression of people. The special cell of the Delhi police recently visited the Twitter India offices to serve a notice in the Congress toolkit case, especially after the tweets of BJP leaders, including spokesperson Sambit Patra, were given the ‘manipulated media’ tag. Many on Twitter called out the police’s visit to the Delhi and Gurugram offices as an intimidation tactic.
“We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules,” said Twitter. In a statement, the company said that it will advocate for changes to certain elements in the new IT regulations that “inhibit free, open public conversation.” Twitter also said that it will continue to have “constructive dialogue” with the Indian government to adopt “a collaborative approach.” The company also pointed out that it is the “collective responsibility of elected officials, industry, and civil society to safeguard the interests of the public.”
Incidentally, this is the first time that Twitter has responded after these rules were announced in late February 2021 and the controversies erupted. This comes after the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) wrote to Twitter, objecting to labelling certain tweets on Congress party’s alleged toolkit as ‘manipulated media’ — a label given to posts or content that are “deceptively alerted or fabricated,” according to the company policy. The IT Ministry also asked all social media giants, including WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to report their status on compliance with the new rules, which came into effect from May 26.
The new IT rules require social media companies to follow regulations to trace the origin or messages and additional due diligence, which includes appointing a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person and resident grievance officer. Non-compliance with these rules would result in these social media companies losing their intermediary status and be liable for criminal action in case of complaints. Facebook and Google responded, stating that they will comply with the new IT Rules. Meanwhile, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has moved the Delhi High Court, challenging the clause in the new rules that mandate them to reveal the originator of a message.
Twitter said it was particularly concerned about the requirement to make an individual, who will be appointed as the compliance officer, criminally liable for the content on the platform. It also pointed out that the requirements for proactive monitoring and the blanket authority to seek information about the users was also concerning. According to Twitter, this represents “dangerous overreach that is inconsistent with open, democratic principles.”
This is not the first time that Twitter has objected to the Indian government’s interference with its policies. During the farmers’ protest between November 2020 and February 2021, the IT Ministry had directed Twitter to block around 100 accounts that supported the protests. Although Twitter blocked these accounts, it later unblocked them, stating that the accounts and tweets in question “constitute free speech and are newsworthy.” “In keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on verified accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians,” Twitter said.
The Union government had warned the company of consequences for not complying with the directions issued under section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. However, Twitter said that due to limited scope under section 69A, “which gives limited room to an intermediary to defend the content, we have been compelled to withhold in response to a non-compliance notice. Not doing so poses penal consequences with many risks for Twitter employees,” it said.
The company also said that over the last few months, they have been regularly discussing with the Ministry the nature of the content and why it should continue to be available.
Twitter has now urged the Ministry of Electronics and IT to publish the Standard Operating Protocols on the procedural aspects of compliance for public consultation. Like many other companies, Twitter, too, has urged MeitY to allow a minimum of three months extension to implement the rules. “We also would like to reaffirm that Twitter continues to accept grievances from users and law enforcement via our existing grievance redressal channel available here under the new Rules,” said Twitter.
Read the Twitter statement:
“Twitter is deeply committed to the people of India. Our service has proven vital for public conversation and a source of support for people during the pandemic. Right now, we are concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve.
“We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules. We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation. We will continue our constructive dialogue with the Indian Government and believe it is critical to adopt a collaborative approach. It is the collective responsibility of elected officials, industry, and civil society to safeguard the interests of the public.”