New IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has picked up where his predecessor – Ravi Shankar Prasad – left off, telling Twitter that “the law of the land is supreme” and urging it to follow the rules.
The message comes amid a bitter row between Twitter and the government over the new IT rules that make social media websites more accountable for third-party content; experts say this means Twitter has lost legal immunity with respect to claims against user-generated content.
Earlier today the company told the Delhi High Court it needs eight weeks to appoint a grievance officer who is an Indian citizen. The rules mandate hiring grievance and compliance officers, as well as another to co-ordinate with take-down requests from the country’s law enforcement agencies.
Twitter is weeks past the deadline set by the government to appoint an India-based grievance officer.
“How long does your process take? If Twitter thinks it can take as long it wants… I will not allow that,” Justice Rekha Palli of the Delhi High Court had said.
Twitter had previously appointed Dharmendra Chatur as its grievance officer, but he stepped down just days later, leaving Twitter in violation of the rules and increasing pressure on the company.
Outgoing IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad sparred several times with Twitter on this issue, frequently criticising the company for non-compliance and failure to follow laws in India.
That sparring included an angry outburst after Twitter temporarily blocked access to his official handle.
Most notably, Mr Prasad last week (when he was still the IT Minister) publicly praised Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook) and Google for complying with the rules. This is a “big step towards transparency“, he said. The omission of Twitter from that compliment was telling.
Mr Vaishnaw’s warning today had echoes of Mr Prasad’s remarks; he had then said: “You operate in India, you make money in India… but if you take the position ‘I will only be governed by laws of America’…This is plainly not acceptable.”
The government has expressed its frustration with Twitter for failing to act quickly enough, it feels, in removing “objectionable” content. This includes tweets about the assault of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad, which led to the filing of an FIR against Twitter India head Manish Maheshwari.
At least three other cases have been filed – one each in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, and another in UP.
The new IT rules have met with criticism from experts and those concerned with the United Nations among those flagging potential human rights and freedom of speech issues.
“We worry that intermediaries will over-comply with takedown requests to limit their liability, or will develop digital recognition-based content removal systems or automated tools to restrict content,” UN special rapporteurs wrote to PM Modi last month.
The government played down those concerns, saying that free speech in India was guaranteed under the Constitution and reinforced by an independent judiciary and a robust media.
Some believe Mr Prasad’s (public) war with the American company was one reason he was removed from the post, with the government hoping that Mr Vaishnaw – an IAS officer with degrees from Wharton and IIT (Kanpur) can resolve issues and repair ties with Twitter.
Ashwini Vaishnaw is one of several new appointees to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet. Mr Vaishnaw, who is now also the Railways Minister, took charge of IT Ministry office this afternoon.