The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology is at the forefront of this ‘battle’.

 

New Delhi: The Government of India is going to ensure that all social media platforms, including Twitter, which had a “free-run” till now, start following the law of the land as they follow in other countries, highly placed officials have indicated to The Sunday Guardian.

Officials said that the relevant ministries were prepared to defend its guidelines that the Government of India had introduced on 25 February (Information Technology-Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code-Rules 2021), even if they are challenged in the Supreme Court, as these guidelines have been prepared after taking inputs and suggestions from multiple entities and countries where similar law already exists, and after putting out the draft rules in the public domain before making them enforceable.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEiTY), which is at the forefront of this “battle”, is led by Ravi Shankar Prasad who is also the law minister and an accomplished lawyer.

Twitter’s legal response to the Government of India is being handled by their deputy general counsel, James Andrew Baker who was earlier a general counsel for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and has extensive experience of working with America’s Department of Justice. He joined Twitter in June last year. Baker, who resigned from the FBI in May 2018, was then working with the Brookings Institution while also teaching at Harvard Law School. The Sunday Guardian reached out to Baker for his comments on the recent developments. In his reply, Baker responded that the Twitter communication team will be sharing their response, but no response was received till the time the story went to press.

“Those who are criticizing the Act and questioning its implications need to read the law minutely and secondly understand why a need was felt to bring in such a law. Twitter has said that it has a problem with appointing a compliance officer in India. Why? Every company has a compliance officer stationed in the country where it functions. Why should Twitter be exempted? Our officials do not know who the person is in the Twitter office who will handle our queries. To all our queries, they have a standard response: it will be handled by their US office. So if the law states that there should be a nodal officer, then why is it being debated? By quoting ‘freedom of speech’ in their press releases and source-based media reports, they are trying to turn a technical, legal issue into something which it is not. The government will not allow a private company to bypass the laws of the land, come what may,” a senior government official told The Sunday Guardian. As per the Ministry, there are roughly 1.75 crore Twitter users in India.

In a press statement that was released on the evening of 27 March, the MeiTY issued a strong rebuttal to the earlier claims made by Twitter through a media statement which had come after a Delhi police team visited its offices in New Delhi and Gurugram on 24 May to serve notice to the “relevant officials”, seeking their cooperation in an investigation that it is doing on the complaint filed by Congress leaders on the issue of “toolkit”.

Twitter, in its statement released on the morning of 27 May, had stated: “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.”

The MeITY in a 900-word strongly worded unprecedented response said that Twitter was “lying”. “The Government strongly controverts the claims made by Twitter today in its press release. India has a glorious tradition of free speech and democratic practices dating back centuries. 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”, while accusing Twitter of “attempting to dictate its terms to the world’s largest democracy”.

“There are several examples of Twitter ignoring requests and directions, some of them of very critical nature dealing with national security and this has been going on for a long time now. The platform is being used by individuals and groups to spread terror and disturbance in India and yet when our agencies ask them to take action, that particular action comes after days and hours have passed. When Singapore told them to remove the words ‘Singapore variant’, it was readily complied. However, when MeITY issued a similar order to remove the words ‘Indian variant’, nothing was done. There are several such examples that show how Twitter has acted like an entity that does not care for Indian interest and laws while it crawls when it comes to other jurisdictions,” the official  said.

The press statement released by MeITY on 27 May also mentions this incident prominently along with other examples which MeiTY officials say raises questions on “Twitter‘s commitment to the people of India”.

  1. Twitter chose to show the geo-location of certain locations in the Union Territory of Ladakh as part of the People’s Republic of China at a time when India and China were engaged in peaceful resolution of border-related issues through bilateral dialogue. Twitter took several days, that too only after repeated reminders, to rectify this blatant disrespect to India’s sensitivity and territorial integrity.
  2. Twitter chose to take suo-moto action against those users who it considered as perpetrators of violence at the Capitol Hill in the USA. But just a few days after the unlawful incidents at Red Fort in Delhi, Twitter refused to take prompt action on the lawful request made by the Government of India to block contents that sought to incite violence on the pretext of a fake genocide plan. Later, it chose to comply, that too partially, when the damage had been done.
  3. Twitter’s lack of responsibility has led to rampant proliferation of fake and harmful content against India and Indians. Promoting vaccine hesitancy has been rampantly done through the use of Twitter platform and yet Twitter has taken no action. Is this commitment to the people of India?
  4. Discriminatory behaviour has been practised against Indians and people of Indian origin because of malicious tagging of B.1.617 mutant as “Indian variant” name despite strict WHO guidelines against it. Again, Twitter has taken no action against such fake narratives and tweets while grandiosely claiming to serve the people of India.

As per MeITY officials, as on Friday evening, all the major social media platforms, including Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Telegram and Linkedin, have submitted the required details, including Chief Compliance Officer, Nodal Contact Person and Grievance Officer with the Ministry.

However, in what government officials termed an “unnecessary” and “provocative” step, Twitter shared the name of a lawyer working in a law firm who they identified as their Nodal Contact Person and Grievance Officer. “The lawyer is not their employee, but attached with the law firm. They (Twitter) are forcing us to take legal recourse against them. Other platforms with more users in India and more financial stake than Twitter have complied with our directions,” the official said, adding that no name was forwarded by Twitter as to who their compliance officer was.

While responding to the latest developments, a Twitter official told The Sunday Guardian that one of their primary concerns was that the law calls for making the compliance officer criminally liable for content that is shared on the platform.

“This is something that we are concerned about apart from asking us to indulge in proactive monitoring and the fact that the authorities can seek whatever information they want related to our users. This, for us, indicates an overreach that is dangerous and goes against the democratic principles,” the official said.

The official further stated that the MeITY should publish Standard Operating Protocols on procedural aspects of these legal compliance for public consultation.

“We have been in regular touch with government officials and try to comply with as many requests as we can as per the law and our principles. We have been asked in the past to block content that constitutes (as per Twitter’s views) protected, legitimate free speech, under Indian and international law, and we have formally communicated this to the Government. 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. We openly and transparently disclose these requests via the Twitter Transparency Center and the Lumen Database,” the Twitter official further stated

Countering the claims made by Twitter, the government official stated that as per Twitter’s own data, out of the 474 “information requests” related to 1,268 Twitter accounts that were made by India, Twitter in  2019 (January to June) provided “some” information in 5% of the requests. (The Sunday Guardian had carried a report on this: Twitter barely replied to Indian information requests).

In comparison, the official pointed out, Twitter acted on 70% of the 2,120 requests made by the United States and 67% of the 658 requests that were put across by the United Kingdom, 52% of the 1,742 requests made by Japan, 56% of  France’s requests for providing information on 549 requests and 18% of the 458 requests made by Germany. “What does this show? Why this bias and lack of respect for requests shared by the Indian government?” the official asked.

As per the latest numbers shared by Twitter, the “information requests” (legal demands to produce account information that Twitter receives from governments, law enforcement, and third parties around the world) that it got from India in the time period between January and June 2020 were 2,367, apart from 246 emergency requests for a total of 6,436 Twitter accounts. The compliance rate was 1% in both the cases.

In contrast to the 2,557 information requests that it received from the US agencies for routine information, the compliance rate was 76% and 11% in the 872 instances of emergency requests that pertained to 9,965 Twitter accounts.

The compliance rate in other countries in routine information where it was more than 40% includes France (72%), Belgium (66%), Canada (58%), United Kingdom (44%), Netherlands (43%), South Korea (42%).

“Emergency request” is defined by Twitter as an information related to account that it may provide to law enforcement agencies in response to a valid “emergency request” if it is  “provided with sufficient information to support a good faith belief that there is an imminent threat involving danger of death or serious physical injury to a person, and we have information relevant to averting or mitigating the threat.”

Similarly, of the 2,768 demands that Twitter received for removal of content on Twitter between January 2020 and June 2020 from Indian agencies, it accepted 13.8% of them. For Russia, the percentage of compliance was 25.8% for the 8,081 demands that it made to Twitter. In Japan, it was 32% for the 19,903 demands that it put across to Twitter.

On the question of personal safety of Twitter employees who are based in India, the official stated that the law and the press release itself states that no such “danger” exists, while pointing to Section 4 (a) of the Act that says: “Provided that no liability under the Act or rules made there under may be imposed on such significant social media intermediary without being given an opportunity of being heard.” The press release on the issue of safety of Twitter employees in India has stated: “The government also wishes to emphatically assure that representatives of social media companies, including Twitter, are and will always remain safe in India and there is no threat to their personal safety and security.”