NEW DELHI: Gloves were off on Thursday as the spat between Twitter and the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) turned ugly, with the former calling out the Centre’s new regulatory regime and the latter saying the platform has no locus in dictating India’s legal policy framework. Both claimed their goal was to protect the user’s privacy and the freedom of speech and expression.
With Twitter claiming it was being intimidated by the Delhi Police for flagging BJP leader Sambit Patra’s tweet on an alleged Congress toolkit as ‘manipulated media’, the latter piled on it, calling the statement mendacious and “designed to seek dubious sympathy and impede a lawful enquiry”.
“Twitter Inc. has taken upon itself, in the garb of terms of service, to adjudicate the truth or otherwise of documents in public space. Twitter is purporting to be both an investigating authority as well as an adjudicating judicial authority. It has no legal sanction to be either. The only legal entity… to investigate is the police and to adjudicate is the courts,” said Delhi Police spokesperson Chenmoy Biswal.
ALSO READ | BJP’s souring social media affinity
The ministry said the company is refusing to comply with those very regulations in the intermediary guidelines on the basis of which it is claiming a safe harbour from any criminal liability in India. The Centre said that Twitter’s statement is an attempt to dictate its terms to the world’s largest democracy.
The ministry charged Twitter with being complacent in taking action against those who incited violence during the Red Fort violence, promoting vaccine hesitancy through its platform as well as showing Ladakh a part of China during the border disputes between two countries. It asked Twitter to stop beating around the bush and comply with the laws of land. “Twitter is just a social media platform and it has no locus in dictating what India’s legal policy framework should be,” the ministry said.
Earlier in the day, Twitter said it is planning to advocate changes in the core elements of the recently-framed social intermediary guidelines. “To keep our service available, we will strive to comply with applicable law in India. But, just as we do around the world, we 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,” the company said in a statement.
Anatomy of the confrontation in three statements – the Delhi Police’s, Centre’s and Twitter’s
Delhi Police’s Full Statement:
We have come across press reports that quote Twitter Inc. statements pertaining to the ongoing inquiry by Delhi Police.
Prima facie, these statements are not only mendacious but designed to impede a lawful inquiry by a private enterprise. Twitter Inc. has taken upon itself, in the garb of terms of service, to adjudicate the truth or otherwise of documents in public space.
Twitter Inc. is purporting to be both an investigating authority as well as an adjudicating judicial authority. It has no legal sanction to be either. The only legal entity, so empowered by the duly laid down law, to investigate is the Police and to adjudicate is the Courts.
However, since Twitter Inc. claims to have material information basis which it not only ‘investigated’ but arrived at a ‘conclusion’, it must share that information with the Police. There should not be any confusion about this logical course.
The entire conduct by Twitter Inc, including its Indian entity, in the last few days has been obfuscatory, diversionary and tendentious. There is one simple thing to do which Twitter refuses to do. That is, cooperate with the law enforcement and reveal to the legal authority the information it has.
Twitter, being a public platform, must lead by example in demonstrating transparency in its functioning which has a bearing on public discourse and should proactively bring clarity into what are subject matters of public domain.
Since the matter has been put in public domain, it is important to set the record straight on the tendentious statements made.
First, Delhi police has registered a preliminary inquiry at the instance of a complaint filed by the representative of the Indian National Congress. Hence, the efforts by Twitter Inc. that portray that this as an FIR filed at the behest of the Government of India is wholly and completely incorrect.
Second, Delhi Police is conducting a preliminary inquiry on the same and the matter is under investigation. Twitter Inc., while placing the cart before the horse, went ahead and declared that the toolkit was ‘Manipulated Media’. This clearly demonstrates that Twitter Inc. was acquainted with the facts of the case and it had material information which was germane to the inquiry by a duly recognized law enforcement agency. Therefore, Twitter was asked, by way of multiple communications, to join the inquiry to provide the information it possesses.
Third, the purpose of Twitter being served a notice to participate in the inquiry was to allow the investigation to process to proceed and bring all relevant matters on record. Twitter India’s subsidiary, TCIPL’s Managing Director, chose to adopt a path of evasiveness instead of cooperation.
Initially, TCIPL’s Managing Director stated in his response that he was merely a sales head, had no role whatsoever in any operations relating to content and thereby refused to join the inquiry. It is to be noted that TCIPL’s stance that it’s Managing Director is a mere sales head runs contrary to his very own previous press interviews wherein he elaborately discussed Twitter’s plan to devise methods to identify abusive/ manipulative content. The above interview makes it clear, that Twitter India’s convoluted stance is similar to a deer caught in the headlights.
Fourth and last, the contrived fear-mongering by Twitter Inc. unfounded and misplaced. The Managing Director of TCIPL was merely served a notice, not as an accused but to participate in the inquiry as Twitter claims to have been acquainted with certain facts.
Twitter’s Inc’s latest statements are devised to seek dubious sympathy when they themselves not only refuse to comply with the law of the land but also claim to be possession of material evidence but refuse to share it with legal authority duly recognized.
Government of India’s statement:
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.
Twitter’s statement is an attempt to dictate its terms to the world’s largest democracy. Through its actions and deliberate defiance, Twitter seeks to undermine India’s legal system. Furthermore, Twitter refuses to comply with those very regulations in the Intermediary Guidelines on the basis of which it is claiming a safe harbour protection from any criminal liability in India.
The larger question is if Twitter is so committed then why it did not set up such a mechanism in India on its own? 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 Headquarter in USA. The purported commitment of Twitter, to its Indian user base, thus not only sounds hollow but completely self-serving.
Twitter has a large user base in India, it earns significant revenue from its Indian operations but is also the most reluctant to appoint an India-based grievance redressal officer and mechanism, chief compliance officer and nodal officer to whom its own users can complain when they are subjected to offensive Tweets.
The Rules empower the ordinary users who become victims of defamation, morphed images, sexual abuse and the whole range of other abusive content in blatant violation of law, to seek redress.
These Rules were finalized after widest possible consultations including with representatives of social media platforms. Ministry of Electronics and IT put the draft Rules in public domain and invited public comments. The Ministry received large number of comments from individuals, civil society, industry associations and organizations. A significant number of counter comments to these comments were also received. There are also various judicial orders by various courts including the Supreme Court of India directing the Government to take appropriate steps. There are also several Parliamentary debates and recommendations to take appropriate measures.
Freedom of Speech and Expression is a Fundamental Right under the Indian Constitution. The Government of India respects the right of people to ask questions and also criticize on these social media platforms including on Twitter. The Government equally respects the right of privacy. However, the only instance of scuttling free speech on Twitter is Twitter itself and its opaque policies, as a result of which people’s accounts are suspended and tweets deleted arbitrarily without recourse.
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.
Twitter has claimed that it is committed to the people of India. Ironically, this commitment of Twitter has been most invisible in recent times. It is pertinent to share some recent examples:
Twitter chose to show the geo-location of certain locations in Union Territory of Ladakh as part of 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.
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 on 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.
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?
Discriminatory behavior has been practiced 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.
Twitter Inc., a USA-based private company, in its communique says that it seeks “constructive dialogue”, “collaborative approach” from the government of a sovereign democratic republic to “safeguard interests of the public”. It is time that Twitter disabuses itself of this grandiosity and comply with the laws of India.
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.
Government condemns the unfortunate statement issued by Twitter as totally baseless, false and an attempt to defame India to hide their own follies.
The Delhi Police has also issued a detailed press release, pertaining to an ongoing investigation, which answer the completely baseless allegations raised by Twitter.
“Twitter is deeply committed to the people of India. Our service has proven vital for public conversation and a source of support for people during the pandemic. 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. We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation. We will continue our constructive dialogue with the Indian Government and believe it is critical to adopt a collaborative approach. It is the collective responsibility of elected officials, industry, and civil society to safeguard the interests of the public.”