July 3, 2021
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
The battle between the Indian government and Twitter is blowing up. Recently, the Uttar Pradesh government – ruled by the same party as the Centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party – moved the Supreme Court against a Karnataka High Court order granting protection from arrest to Twitter India MD Manish Maheshwari. This was in a case connected with a viral video of an attack on an elderly man in Ghaziabad. Earlier, there have been flashpoints over the new digital rules that put a huge compliance burden on platforms, make them responsible for what users post and are a serious threat to freedom of speech. These cases and clashes are part of an ever-expanding struggle between the world’s leading microblogging platform and the Narendra Modi government as it gets increasingly jittery over the digital narrative about it amid growing criticism of its performance.
The Modi government has repeatedly tried to strongarm Twitter to take down posts critical of it. While Twitter has complied in some instances, it has also asserted that its platform can be used to voice dissent too. Twitter has also pulled up BJP members by tagging their tweets as manipulated content. And it permanently suspended the account of actress Kangana Ranaut, a shrill supporter of Modi’s agenda.
Under siege from public discontent, the government recently rushed in new digital rules. They give the government the power to put stringent curbs on social media platforms by classifying them as intermediaries responsible for what people post on it and to take down what the government deems unfit. It also introduced burdensome compliance norms and gave the platforms just three months to put things in place. Naturally, many couldn’t and now face strong legal action. In contrast, the European Union gave tech companies two years to comply with data privacy rules announced in 2018.
The government vs Twitter feud goes back a while.
A tweet by global singing sensation Rihanna about the farmers’ protest against new agriculture laws set off a storm and turned the international spotlight on the agitation. A rattled government trotted out a long line of Indian actors and sportspersons who parroted near identical messages in support of it. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, meanwhile, liked a series of tweets that supported Rihanna’s post.
Twitter also labelled a post by BJP IT Cell Chief Amit Malviya as ‘manipulated media’ and blocked it from being shared. There can be no doubt about the correctness of the action. Malviya had posted a clipped video of a Delhi police officer trying to hit a protesting farmer with a baton to claim that the farmer was not really beaten. Later, when the entire clip was viewed, it was proven that some policemen’s blows did connect.
Soon after the Rihanna post, under pressure from the government, Twitter withheld the handles of many who were talking about the farmers’ protest. Among them were the accounts of news magazine The Caravan, the Kisan Ekta Morcha, Aam Aadmi Party MLA Jarnail Singh, actor Sushant Singh, activist Hansraj Meena and Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati. After a strong pushback, Twitter said it was merely complying with a government request and then went on to restore some of these accounts. It said it was doing so to preserve free speech.
As you can tell, Twitter didn’t exactly cover itself in glory. Blocking the accounts went against the idea of free speech in the first place, so it was a weak argument. The truth is Twitter refused to stand its ground on an important issue.
Meanwhile, the battle raged on.
The Centre issued a notice to Twitter, warning of action if it didn’t block accounts that used the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmersGenocide. The order also mentioned some accounts that did not use the hashtag. Later, a tweet by the BJP’s chief spokesperson Sambit Patra was labelled ‘manipulated media’. The Modi government stepped in again, ordering Twitter to take down the tag.
That’s when the intimidatory tactics got even more intense. Twitter’s office was raided by the Delhi Police Special Cell, but found it to be locked.
Twitter accused the the authorities of using “intimidation tactics” and said it would oppose the IT rules because they obstruct free speech. It said: “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.”
Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad defended the action, saying the IT rules had been in the works for years.
However, the government’s claims must be viewed with scepticism. There are legal provisions that allow it to request content takedowns but there are none under which it can seek removal of a label like ‘manipulated media’. Also, when the focus has been to impose obligations on platforms to regulate harmful speech, it makes no sense to claim they must always wait for police investigations to conclude before responding to hate speech or misinformation.
The Indian government has been on tenterhooks ever since the revelation in 2018 about Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook to profile and manipulate users through political content. In July that year, Prasad said social media platforms could not “evade their responsibility, accountability and larger commitment to ensure that their platforms were not misused on a large scale to spread incorrect facts projected as news and designed to instigate people to commit crime”.
Now, if Twitter doesn’t comply with the new rules, it could lose its legal status as an intermediary. This status is what protects social media platforms from being prosecuted for posts by users. This opens the door to Twitter employees facing legal action.
While there is little danger of Twitter being blocked because it has ramifications on India’s relations with the US, the government could create serious impediments for the platform and target its employees aggressively to ensure it gets its way.
This would be yet another blow to your freedoms at a time when they are under serious threat anyway.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch you again soon.