The government is at loggerheads with social media platforms yet again and this time it’s Twitter with whom it earlier also had a run-in.
Fresh trouble is brewing between both parties as Twitter has sued the Indian government to challenge some of the block orders on tweets and accounts.
In its lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the Karnataka High Court, Twitter, which has approximately 48 million users in India, alleged that the government had abused its power by ordering it to arbitrarily and disproportionately remove several tweets from its platform.
“Blocking of such information is a violation of the freedom of speech guaranteed to citizen-users of the platform. Further, the content at issue does not have any apparent proximate relationship to the grounds under Section 69A,” it argued.
The company also alleged the government threatened to open criminal proceedings against its chief compliance officer in India if the company didn’t comply with orders.
The same day, Union Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said the government will make social media accountable for its content.
"Social media accountability has become a valid question globally. It's important to hold it accountable, which will first start with self-regulation, then industry regulation, followed by government regulation."
The lawsuit follows a rough year and a half for Twitter in India, where it has been asked to take down hundreds of accounts and tweets by the government under the new social media rules which went into effect last year.
It looks like the fresh issue is going to further escalate the tensions between all social media platforms and the government.
Is Twitter the first social media platform to challenge the government?
Twitter is not the first tech giant to sue the government. WhatsApp did the same last year, challenging new regulations that could allow authorities to make people’s private messages “traceable,” and conduct mass surveillance.
WhatsApp, which has over 530 million users in India, stated the said requirements do not pass the tests enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, is in violation of Article 14. It is also in violation of the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression and Section 79 and 69A of the Information Technology Act.
Why Twitter is challenging the takedown orders now?
The microblogging site has partially complied with the requests in the past year but sought to fight back against many of the challenges.
Under India’s new IT rules, Twitter has little to no room left to individually challenge the takedown orders and noncompliance may result in legal actions against its compliance officer in the country.
Earlier conflicts between Twitter and the Indian government
In May last year, there was a confrontation between the Centre and Twitter over the controversial “toolkit” issue.
The tension between the two was apparent on May 24 last year, when Delhi police, visited two offices of Twitter in Delhi and Gurgaon to seek more information about Twitter’s rationale to label one of the tweets by ruling partly BJP spokesperson as “manipulated media.”
Twitter then described the episode as “intimidation.”
What are the new social media rules in India?
India’s new social media rules rolled out on February 25, 2021, to make the tech giants more responsible and accountable for the content they allow their users to upload on their platforms.
The Centre introduced The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 to regulate the content of the Over-the-Top platforms and other top social media sites like Facebook, Whatsapp, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.
According to the new rules, the platforms are required to disclose to the first originator, any inappropriate message or tweet that is linked to the sovereignty of India, security of the country and relations with other foreign states.
This means if any misinformation or fake post goes viral, then the government has the power to ask the company about the originator of the post and the social media sites are bound to share the same information with the government.
The rules also say these platforms require a grievance redressal mechanism which should include a Chief Compliance Officer, a Nodal Contact Person and a Resident Grievance Officer.
All social media platforms must publish these details on their apps and websites and explain to users the procedure to make a complaint against any content on the platform.
These complaints need to be acknowledged within 24 hours of receipt and should be acted upon within a period of 15 days from the date of receipt.
Failing to comply with the laws will result in the platform being liable for action in case a complaint is filed against some content on it. Noncompliance to the new policies will mean that the platform will lose its intermediary status which provides them immunity against being liable for any data shared/hosted on their platform.
This has escalated tension between the centre and the social media platforms.
Have platforms complied with IT Rules?
None of the social media platforms, except the homegrown Twitter rival Koo, has so far fully complied with the rules
This new rule will harm the existing users as according to this rule, social media sites will have to trace all the messages including the private conversations of the users, which can amount to a violation of privacy.
Facebook, last year announced that it has been aiming to comply with the rules and is holding further discussions.
Twitter issued a statement, raising safety concerns of its employees working in India and also the potential threat to the freedom of speech and expression of its users and stated they want to have an open discussion with the authorities.