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India tells Twitter to obey its laws — or make wielding them easier

Minister lashes avian network and suggests its legal protections may have been removed

India has again expressed severe displeasure with Twitter, following three different incidents embroiling the micro-blogging service in a complex debate about sovereignty and censorship and possibly making the company liable for its users’ posts.

The core of the ongoing dispute is India’s Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, a set of rules that requires “social media intermediaries” to handle government requests to take down content and to appoint local officers to serve as the point of contact for those requests and ensure they are handled expeditiously.

Twitter missed deadlines to appoint those officers, and when pressed on why it had not complied with the new Rules, provided the name of a US-based employee and an Indian lawyer. India’s new rules state that the officers must be local employees, so Twitter was asked to appear before the national parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology to explain itself.

Also on the agenda at that meeting was Twitter’s decision to label tweets by a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as containing “manipulated” media — essentially an accusation that the spokesperson was sharing fake news.

Twitter’s response to both issues was to say it prioritises its own decision-making processes.

But it has emerged that India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has said it respects those processes.

India’s Software Freedom Law Center used freedom of information laws to secure and publish correspondence between MeitY and Twitter in which the Ministry stated that it respects Twitter’s policies and decision to label the tweets, but that the social network’s action could be seen as a denial of natural justice, as a criminal investigation into whether the tweets are a forgery is yet to conclude. MeitY therefore asked Twitter to reconsider its decision.

The third incident concerns a video depicting alleged racially motivated violence that circulated on Twitter. Authorities in the State of Uttar Pradesh (UP) have demanded Twitter’s Indian CEO explain why the video was allowed to circulate.

That the video depicts violence is not disputed. However, local police object to its characterisation as racial violence. Journalists who reported on and/or tweeted the videos have therefore become embroiled in the controversy.

As this story played out, India’s law and IT Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, has hinted that Twitter’s actions could mean it has lost its status as an intermediary service and therefore no longer has immunity from prosecution if content posted by its users breaches Indian laws.

India’s government has made no announcement on the matter, but the Minister appears to regard loss of immunity as naturally flowing from Twitter’s non-compliance with the new Rules.

The Minister on Sunday added an argument that Twitter is not doing the right thing by its users.

The matter is unresolved. Twitter has shown no signs either that it intends to change its ways, or considers it has lost its liability shield.

India’s government has not budged on the appropriateness of the new Rules.

Meanwhile it has emerged that Facebook, too, uses a lawyer’s office for its compliance contacts — but has to date escaped the governmental ire Twitter has attracted. ®

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