India, Twitter brawl in public as latest content rules begin to bite

Government lashes WhatsApp, too, in free speech vs sovereignty debate


Twitter has taken issue with India’s Digital Media Ethics Code – and India’s government has responded with a forcefully worded press release that accuses the micro-blogging site of defying and defaming the nation.

The source of this stoush is India’s Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, legislation that requires large social media companies to prevent publication and distribution of “any information prohibited by any law in relation to the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India: the security of the State; friendly relations with foreign States; public order; decency or morality; in relation to contempt of court; defamation; incitement to an offence.”

Platforms are also required to “enable identification of the first originator of the information” – essentially identifying users to Indian authorities. That requirement has proven controversial, as it is felt to require breaking end-to-end encryption.

The new law came into effect on May 26, a couple of days after Indian police dropped into Twitter’s local HQ seeking information about the social network’s decision to label a government spokesperson’s tweets as containing manipulated media. India’s government has taken umbrage at that decision.

Twitter didn’t appreciate that criticism, as the offending tweets were identified by independent arbiters as containing faked material. The social network also objected to the police visit to its offices, and responded as follows:

New Delhi responded with the headline, “Twitter needs to comply with the laws of the land,” and the subhead: “Government condemns statement issued by Twitter as totally baseless, false and an attempt to defame India to hide their own follies”.

Trust us: we read a lot of government announcements, and that kind of language is unusually blunt in any nation, and well and truly out of the ordinary in India.

The statement goes on to accuse Twitter of hypocrisy, of operating a deliberately enfeebled operation in India and hiding behind its US operations, and just not taking Indian laws seriously. Here’s a choice bit:

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 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.

India’s government has also taken aim at WhatsApp, which on Tuesday filed its objections to the new laws. Indian outlet MediaNama obtained WhatsApp’s filing and concluded it argues the new law is unconstitutional.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s minister for law and justice, communications, electronics and information technology, responded with the following:

WhatsApp’s challenge, at the very last moment, and despite having sufficient time and opportunity available during consultation process and after the rules were enacted, to the Intermediary Guidelines is an unfortunate attempt to prevent the same from coming into effect.

Google, meanwhile, has said it will comply with the laws.

However, the Asia Internet Coalition, a lobby group of which Google is a member, has issued its own statement [PDF] in which it says the new law “will impact the data privacy and security of Indian internet users, as well as the technology sector’s hitherto tremendous contribution to India’s economic growth by imposing onerous compliance frameworks on both local and international digital media companies.”

The coalition calls on India’s government “to work closely with Industry to ensure that these Rules are implemented in ways that mitigate the impact on online platforms’ operations in India, and ultimately, on individuals, start-ups, and the country’s technology ecosystem.”

India’s government is holding firm, and has form insisting social media operations remove content that could be construed as criticism of its policies and performance.

Regulations like the new law’s prohibition of “incitement to an offence,” for example, were used to force social networks to take down posts about farmers’ protests against new food wholesaling laws. By promoting protests, the posts were held to have the potential to lead to events at which violence against police would take place. That violence would be illegal, so the posts came down ... and Indian social media users were denied information about massive opposition to an unpopular policy.

Indian media and websites are abuzz with discussion of Twitter and WhatsApp’s actions, with all the subtlety – and lack thereof – that so often characterizes debates on free speech, sovereignty, and big tech companies’ influence on both.

And that’s all happening against a background of a massive second wave of COVID-19 infections that has all but overwhelmed India’s health system and became the subject of a (paywalled) New York Times story that estimates coronavirus cases and deaths to be orders of magnitudes above data reported by India’s government – and that data already reports grim numbers of infections and deaths.

That Times report is itself now the subject of fierce debate, some of it suggesting the paper has abused its platform and defamed India … just like social media companies. ®

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