The Central government asked Twitter India “to stop beating around the bush” and comply with Indian laws while condemning the microblogging site’s statement to be “baseless, false and an attempt to defame India to hide their own follies.”
With Twitter expressing concern over the “intimidation tactics” by the Delhi Police after police raided its offices recently as a “threat to freedom of expression” and its employees, the Centre and the Delhi Police both issued statements condemning the claims and asking the micro-blogging site to comply with the new IT Rules.
New IT Rules introduced by the Indian government
On February 25, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) introduced the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules to regulate content in OTT platforms, social media intermediaries and digital news media which were slated to come into effect after 90 days, on May 25.
According to the new IT Rules, social media intermediaries including WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube have to establish a ‘grievance redressal mechanism’ for receiving and resolving complaints from users or victims; remove child pornography, videos relating to rape or any kind of nudity and remove or disable access to such content within 24 hours of receiving complaints. It will have to identify the originator of disputed content without providing any information to the originator.
The new IT Rules mandate social media intermediaries to appoint officers who are Indian citizens to key compliance roles that have oversight over the additional due diligence required for removal of content. Abiding by the new IT Rules will also hold “significant” social media intermediaries accountable to Indian laws and in case they fail to adhere to the code, it will lead to their loss of protection from lawsuits and criminal prosecution.
Delhi Police, Twitter and ‘Covid Toolkit’
The Delhi Police on Monday searched offices of Twitter India in New Delhi and Gurugram, hours after issuing a notice about labelling several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders’ tweets as “manipulated media” in relation to a Covid-19 toolkit allegedly released by Congress.
One of the first tweets made by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra followed by several tweets by other BJP leaders accusing the Congress of releasing a toolkit to tarnish Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image, was tagged “manipulated media” by Twitter recently.
Friends look at the #CongressToolKit in extending help to the needy during the Pandemic!
More of a PR exercise with the help of “Friendly Journalists” & “Influencers” than a soulful endeavour.
Read for yourselves the agenda of the Congress:#CongressToolKitExposed pic.twitter.com/3b7c2GN0re
— Sambit Patra (@sambitswaraj) May 18, 2021
However, the fact-checking publication Alt News found “uncanny” similarities between a 10-day-old Twitter thread by ‘Modi Bharosa’, a page led by the Centre’s PR strategist, mentioning a “new toolkit” attributed to the Congress. In another article, the publication also claimed that the Covid toolkit attributed to Congress was created on a forged letterhead while Congress claimed that BJP falsely attributed the letterhead of a genuine fact-based document on the Central Vista project to a fake toolkit.
The two alleged documents that went viral were titled “Cornering Narendra Modi & BJP on COVID Management” and “Central Vista Redevelopment: Vanity Project Amidst the Pandemic” which had four screenshots each.
Congress denied all the accusations while claiming that the toolkit was “fake” and BJP used “forged” Covid-19 mismanagement document to divert attention from Modi’s mismanagement of the second wave of Covid-19 that led to thousands of deaths and was globally criticised for the crumbling healthcare system in the country.
Initially, the Delhi Police special cell sent a notice to Twitter India MD Manish Maheshwari seeking an explanation behind the tag of “manipulated media” while also seeking the removal of the tag as the matter was being investigated by a law enforcement agency.
However, hours later, the Delhi Police raided the Twitter India offices.
“Twitter is deeply committed to the people of India. Our service has proven vital for the public conversation and a source of support for people during the pandemic. To keep our service available, we will strive to comply with applicable law in India,” wrote Twitter.
The microblogging site further wrote that it will “continue to be strictly guided by principles of transparency, a commitment to empowering every voice on the service, and protecting freedom of expression and privacy under the rule of law” as it does globally.
While expressing concern for the safety of its employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people it serves, Twitter wrote: “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 believe that it is the collective responsibility of elected officials, industry, and civil society to safeguard the interests of the public.
— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) May 27, 2021
Delhi Police’s reply
“Twitter is purporting to be both an investigating as well as adjudicating judicial authority,” said Delhi Police to ANI and also added that Twitter has “no legal sanction to be either” as the sole investigating powers lie with the police and court.
Claiming Twitter’s “portrayal that the FIR was filed at the behest of the Government of India” to be “wholly and completely incorrect”, the Delhi Police said it had started a preliminary inquiry based on a complaint filed by a representative of Congress.
The Delhi Police also said that Twitter sought “dubious sympathy” through its latest statement by refusing to comply with the Indian laws and also by claiming “possession of material evidence but refuse to share it with legal authority duly recognised”.
“Protecting free speech in India is not the prerogative of only a private, for-profit, foreign entity like Twitter, but it is the commitment of the world’s largest democracy and its robust institutions,” wrote the Central government in the press release.
The Centre accused Twitter of attempting “to dictate its terms to the world’s largest democracy” while seeking to “undermine” Indian laws through its actions and defiance.
Claiming Twitter’s claims of “commitment” and “transparency” as “hollow and completely self-serving”, Meity questioned why the microblogging site has neither appointed any regulatory officer nor set up a mechanism in India on its own, similar to the one mentioned in the new IT Rules.
“Twitter needs to stop beating around the bush and comply with the laws of the land. Law making and policy formulations is the sole prerogative of the sovereign and Twitter is just a social media platform and it has no locus in dictating what should India’s legal policy framework should be,” wrote Meity.
It also pointed out the ongoing tiff with Twitter that began when it did not abide by the Centre’s instructions of blocking over 250 accounts during the ongoing farmer’s protests, not taking action against “promoting vaccine hesitancy” through the platform or “Indian variant” tweets.
On Friday, a plea was filed in the Delhi High Court against Twitter India for alleged non-compliance with the new IT Rules, seeking direction from the Centre to pass necessary instruction to Twitter Inc and its India office to appoint a resident grievance officer under Rule 4 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Ethics Code) Rules 2021, without further delay.