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IT Ministry expresses “dissatisfaction” with Twitter leadership, says Indian laws must be supremely followed

Highlighting the clause of reasonable restrictions to freedom of expression, the Central Government has asked Twitter for complete compliance with the Constitution and law of the land. Concerns have also been raised about the platform’s commitment to transparency, reports ANJALI JAIN


The Indian government on Wednesday expressed “strong displeasure” at the way Twitter “unwillingly and grudgingly” responded to its order to remove “provocative” tweets from the platform amid the farmers’ protests.

In a virtual meeting with top Twitter officials, vice president-global public policy, Monique Meche, and deputy general counsel and vice president-legal, Jim Baker, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) made it clear that the platform will have to follow the law of the land, irrespective of their own rules to run the platform.

“Twitter is free to formulate its own rules and guidelines like any other business entity does, but Indian laws which are enacted by the Parliament of India must be followed irrespective of Twitter’s own rules and guidelines,” the government said, according to an official statement issued late Wednesday evening.

While reminding Twitter of the supreme nature of India’s laws and constitution, the government reiterated that business entities are expected to remain compliant with these laws. “Lawfully passed orders are binding on any business entity. They must be obeyed immediately. If they are executed days later, it becomes meaningless,” it added.

Comparing the disturbance at the Red Fort on Republic day with the storming of the Capitol in the USA by Trump supporters, the IT Secretary Ajay Sawhney expressed his “dissatisfaction” with the platform’s “differential treatment” of both the incidents. The platform had blocked objectionable handles, including that of former US President Donal Trump following the riots that took place in January this year.

The statement added that the IT Secretary had conveyed to Twitter representatives that, while “India has a robust mechanism for protection of freedom of speech and expression”, this freedom is “not absolute and subject to reasonable restrictions” as has been mentioned in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India.

The Government also raised doubts about Twitter’s “commitment to transparency and healthy conversation” due to the “manner in which Twitter officially allows fake, unverified, anonymous and automated bot accounts to be operated on its platform”, according to the press release.

The social media giant has been at loggerheads with the Indian government over what has been flagged as non-compliance to block 257 accounts on the platform using hashtags related to ‘farmer genocide’.

Another 1,178 accounts were asked to be removed by Twitter this week, as they are believed to be backed by Khalistani sympathisers and Pakistan according to security agencies. Twitter had requested a formal dialogue with the MeitY on Tuesday, adding that “An acknowledgment to the receipt of the non-compliance notice has also been formally communicated.”

Twitter acknowledged in a blog post on Tuesday that it had withheld “a portion of the accounts identified in the blocking orders given by the government”. However, the firm added that no action was taken against accounts of news media entities, journalists, activists and politicians. “To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law. We informed the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology  (MeitY) of our enforcement actions today, February 10, 2021,” the post stated.

Twitter also added in the blog post that a range of enforcement actions had been taken by the company, including permanent suspension of accounts in certain cases, against more than 500 accounts escalated across all MeitY orders for clear violations of Twitter’s Rules.

In a statement, the company said, “Twitter is guided by principles of transparency and empowering the public conversation. If we receive a valid legal request about potentially illegal content on Twitter, we review it under the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in the location only.”

On the issue of the ‘farmer genocide’ hashtag, the IT Secretary expressed “strong displeasure on the way Twitter acted after an emergency order was issued to remove this hashtag and content related to that. Spreading misinformation using an incendiary and baseless hashtag referring to  ‘farmer genocide’ at a time when such irresponsible content can provoke and inflame the situation is neither journalistic freedom nor freedom of expression as envisaged under Article 19 of the Constitution of India.”

Referring to the protest “Toolkit” making rounds on Twitter and being investigated by security forces, the Secretary clarified that it is now evident that a strong social media campaign around the protests was being planned in a foreign country, and it is unacceptable for such campaigns which are “designed to create disharmony and unrest in India” to exist on the platform, and strong action should be taken by the company against “such well-coordinated campaigns against India, through compliance with the applicable law of the land.”

The statement added that Twitter has affirmed its commitment to following India’s rules and laws and have requested better engagement between the Government of India and Twitter’s global team.

On Thursday, February 11th, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told the Rajya Sabha that action will be taken against those who flout Indian laws and cautioned against social media platforms if they spread fake news.

“We respect social media a lot, it has empowered common people. Social media has a big role in the Digital India programme. However, if social media are misused to spread fake news and violence, then action will be taken on the misuse of social media in India whether Twitter or else,” he was quoted as saying in the Upper House.

While responding to a written question on Thursday, the Centre informed the Rajya Sabha that Information Technology Rules are being amended to make social media platforms more responsive and accountable to Indian laws. These Rules will also make digital media platforms adhere to a Code of Ethics.

(Anjali Jain is a student of the Symbiosis Institute for Media and Communication, Pune. She is an intern with The Leaflet.)