Twitter is at odds with the Indian government over new laws — reigniting the age-old battle of national interest versus freedom of speech

Twitter is at odds with the Indian government over new laws — reigniting the age-old battle of national interest versus freedom of speech
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on 13 Novermber 2018 during his visit to IndiaTwitter/@Jack
  • The stand off between the Indian government and Twitter is escalating with the country bringing in new laws to oversee online speech.
  • The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has asked the social media platform to ‘stop beating around the bush’ and comply with the law of the land.
  • While the government claims that its only asking Twitter the adhere with the law of the land, Twitter maintains that the new IT rules are a threat to freedom of speech.
India caught many off guard when it introduced its new information technology (IT) rules back in February, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And Twitter isn’t quite on board, yet.

The two have been locked in a battle of national interest versus freedom of speech, both with an intent to protect users. Today, on May 28, a plea has been filed in the Delhi High Court against Twitter and its non-compliance with the IT rules. The plea says that Twitter must oblige its statutory and executive duties as a ‘significant’ social media intermediary.

According to the new guidelines, ‘significant’ social media intermediaries are required to bring on local officers, take down posts at the government’s behest and, all in all, be better with their use of artificial intelligence (AI) when it comes to tracking down harmful content.
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Not everyone is on the same page about what this means and how to go around implementing it, especially since the government has been clamping down on criticism of its handling of the COVID-19 crisis.


Things were already bitter between the Indian government and Twitter

Authorities in India and Twitter were already in disagreement before the new rules were set to kick on May 26.

Earlier in the month, the leaders of the ruling party alleged that there was a plot by the opposition to undermine Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. And, on Twitter, they shared the alleged ‘COVID-19 Toolkit’ document with criticisms of the Modi administration.

Twitter is at odds with the Indian government over new laws — reigniting the age-old battle of national interest versus freedom of speech
The 'COVID-19 Toolkit' allegedly complied by the opposition party in India, CongressTwitter

Trouble began when the Jack Dorsey-owned social networking platform tagged these tweets as ‘manipulated media’ after a written complaint was sent in by Congress. What came next was not expected.

On May 24, news broke that the police were ‘visiting’ Twitter’s offices in Delhi and Gurgaon. The cops justified that the social media platform had been vague in its replies, which is why they were forced to come down to their offices in order to find the right person to serve with notice.

The only problem was that the offices were empty with the national capital, New Delhi, under lockdown and all of Twitter’s employees working from home.

Twitter fears for its employees

In the backdrop of authorities coming down to Twitter’s office, the company issued a statement that it will ‘try’ and comply with India’s new IT rules, but is afraid for the safety of its employees.

“Right now, we are concerned by recent developments regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve,” it said in a tweet. In April, the platform was asked to remove dozens of tweets at the request of the government that were critical of the country’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Under the new rules, platforms like Twitter need to process official requests for content removal within a span of 36 hours. Failing to do so could expose its local employees to legal consequences, including arrest and up to seven years in jail.

Twitter called out the authorities for using ‘intimidation tactics’ and asserted that they would be taking a stand against elements of the new IT rules that obstruct online free speech. In order to comply with the new rules, the company asked for a three-month extension.

India hits back at Twitter for undermining the law of the land

With international media and civil liberties lawyers backing Twitter’s claims, the Indian government took to the offensive.

In a letter to Twitter on May 28, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), asked the social media platform to ‘stop beating around the bush’. “Twitter has claimed that it is committed to the people of India. Ironically, this commitment of Twitter has been most invisible in recent times,” said the letter.

It calls Twitter’s claims about the government obstructing freedom of speech and using intimidation tactics “totally baseless, fasle and an attempt to defame India to hide their own folies.”

What happens to Twitter if it doesn’t comply with India’s new IT rules?

If Twitter doesn’t comply with the new rules, it risks losing legal status as an intermediary in the country. The ‘intermediary’ status is what protects social media platforms, like Twitter, from being prosecuted for posts made by users on their websites.

Some fear that Twitter could get blocked altogether after the example set by the banning of Chinese short video app TikTok — more than once. The platform had over 20 million active users in India, but it was blocked after the Indian government claimed that it was adhering to the law of the land.

India is the biggest market for both Facebook and YouTube, and the third-biggest for Twitter. The new rules will affect all three giants, since they all have more than 5 million users putting them in the ‘significant’ social media intermediary category.

Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp has also taken a stand against the new regulations. It is suing the Indian government for asking the platform to break encryption and thereby violate the users’ right to privacy.

“Requiring messaging apps to ‘trace’ chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp, which would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermines people’s right to privacy,” the company told Business Insider in a statement.