With the announcement of the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 in February by the Government of India, Twitter is caught in a legal tussle with the Indian government. The government gave intermediaries like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram three months to comply with the rules. Failure to abide by the authorities led to Twitter losing its tag as an intermediary. The platform is now considered a digital news platform and is now liable for misinformation spread using it.
The New IT Rules
The government announced new IT rules that now govern the social media platforms in India on February 25 2021. It gave the companies a stipulated time of three months to comply with the rules.
The rules were brought in to regulate the content on social media platforms. The end objective was to curb the spread of fake news, child pornography, paedophilia, the circulation of obscene pictures, and plagiarism.
These acts abetted and aided perpetrators to commit acts of cybercrime, violence and vitiate communal harmony.
The new rules required the social media platforms to do due diligence, which required the companies to set up a grievance redressal mechanism. The Section 79 of the Constitution under Information Technology Act, 2000 governed these regulations. It led to the creation of three new posts at the local offices of the intermediaries – a Chief Compliance Officer, a Nodal contact person and a Resident Grievance Officer.
The Chief Compliance offer is responsible for ensuring the company followed the rules and the laws. The officer is liable in proceedings related to relevant third-party information. The officer appointed should be a senior employee.
The Nodal contact person is required to stay in touch with the law enforcement agencies. He is held responsible for complying with orders and requisitions made by them.
The Resident Grievance Officer is mandated to publish compliance reports every month. The report contains details of complaints received, and due action is taken against the complaints are recorded in it. The other information contained in the notification is the number of specific links removed or disabled in compliance with the laws.
All the officers appointed to these positions must be citizens of India.
Non-Compliance of Rules by Twitter
The controversy started a few days before the new IT rules came into effect.
On May 18 2021, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Sambit Patra tweeted, “Friends look at the Congress Toolkit in extending help to the needy during the pandemic! More of a PR exercise with ‘Friendly journalists’ and ‘Influencers’ than a soulful endeavor.” He posted a set of documents that showed how Congress carried out an organized misinformation campaign.
The tweet was retweeted by BJP leader and former Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh and IT Cell head Amit Malviya. Many social media influencers associated with the political ideology did the same. Twitter tagged the tweet as manipulated media.
This led to a political controversy between the BJP and Congress. Congress filed a complaint with Delhi police as the tweet was tagged as manipulated media. During the investigation, Delhi Police officials served Twitter a notice to join the study.
The government asked Twitter to remove the manipulated tag. It said the matter was pending before a law enforcement agency. It was not proper for the social media platform to pass judgement as the issue was being investigated.
The incident brought the practices of Twitter into question. The question asked of Twitter was on what basis did it tag the tweet as manipulated.
Second Round of Confrontation
The second round of the confrontation started when Twitter failed to comply with the new rules. Twitter, in its justification for non-compliance, said it was protecting the freedom of expression. In response, the Ministry of Electronics and IT issued a strongly-worded statement.
The government stated, “Twitter representatives in India routinely claim that they have no authority and that they and the people of India need to escalate everything to the Twitter headquarters in USA. The purported commitment of Twitter, to its Indian user base, thus not only sounds hollow but completely self-serving.”
The government reminded Twitter that it is a US-based private company. In its communique, as a response, it sought ‘constructive dialogue’ and ‘collaborative approach from the government of a sovereign democratic republic‘ to safeguard the interests of the public. The government advised Twitter to clarify its grandiosity and comply with the laws of India.
Several instances were cited by the government where Twitter failed to safeguard the interests of the public.
Twitter showed the location of the Union Territory of Ladakh as a part of China. Unfortunately, it happened when the countries were negotiating a peaceful resolution to the border dispute. It took repeated reminders and several days for Twitter to correct its mistake.
- Twitter took suo-moto action against the considered perpetrators of violence at Capitol Hill in the USA. However, the social media platform refused to act on the lawful request of the Government of India to block content in the aftermath of the unlawful incident at Red Fort.
- The government questioned the commitment of Twitter to the people of India as it let the rampant proliferation of harmful content against India and Indians. Furthermore, it challenged the role of Twitter in promoting vaccine hesitancy in India.
- The government questioned the discriminatory practices followed by Twitter against Indians. It disputed the tagging of B.1.617 mutant as the ‘Indian variant’, which went against WHO guidelines.
Loss of Status as Intermediary
The series of events that led to the loss of status started on the Loni border in Uttar Pradesh when a video of a 72-year-old Abdul Samad Shafi being assaulted by a group of young men emerged on Twitter. According to the video, the youth forced him to chant the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’, and they forcibly cut his beard. The narrative painted an angle of communal violence.
The video supposedly shot on June 5 went viral a few days ago. Officers investigating the incident said the incident was one of ‘personal dispute’ and not communal. They said at least one of the arrested men is a Muslim.
Iraj Raja, Superintendent of Police (Rural), said Samad was beaten up by the suspects over the amulets he sold. The police also said he was not made to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as alleged by him earlier.
As there is no element of communal violence, the Uttar Pradesh Police filed an FIR. The police filed the FIR based on the complaint of a local policeman. He alleged the video was shared with the interest to provoke communal violence.
“There is no communal angle to the incident in Loni where a man was thrashed, and his beard chopped off. The following entities – The Wire, Rana Ayyub, Mohammad Zubair, Dr Shama Mohammed, Saba Naqvi, Maskoor Usmani, Salman Nizami – without checking the fact, started giving communal colour to the incident”, the Ghaziabad police noted in the FIR.
As Twitter let the misinformation spread, the police added Twitter India and Twitter Inc to the FIR. The government declared that Twitter lost its intermediary status after the filing of the FIR.
IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted, “The simple fact of the matter is that Twitter failed to comply with the Intermediary Guidelines that came into effect from May 26.” He added that Twitter deliberately chose the path of non-compliance.
Continuing his Twitter thread, he added, “It is astounding that Twitter which portrays itself as a flag bearer of free speech, chooses the path of deliberate defiance when it comes to the Intermediary Guidelines.”
What Does It Mean For Twitter?
Twitter has lost the legal shield it enjoyed from prosecution for content posted by third parties.
With the legal shield removed, Twitter now functions like any other digital news platform in India. Any misinformation, fake news or objection spread on Twitter will see the company as an accused if a case is filed.
Currently, the company faces two cases in India. With its brazen defiance stating it follows its internal policy to the Parliament Panel of Information Technology, the feud will only get bigger. Twitter might probably follow the footsteps of TikTok if delays with compliance any longer.