Dr Pradeep Mahapatra
Twitter’s confrontation with the Government of India on the issue of administrative requests to take down content, account blockage, and supply of user information periodically enters news headlines. Enactment of laws and notification of rules compel the social media platforms to comply with government directions. Media analysts believed that Twitter took up a stand to fight against “some of the provisions of Indian laws that provide the foundations for such orders.”
Twitter moved to file a petition at the Karnataka High Court for a judicial review during the first week of July 2022. The contents of the petition was not revealed in the initial stage. However, news reports mentioned the backdrop that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Government of India issued notice to the micro-blogging firm to act on multiple content takedown requests by July 4. “Failure to comply with those may lead to immunity as an intermediary under the IT Act, 2000, the ministry said.”
Information Technology Act 2000 designates social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. as ‘intermediaries’. The users who post text, pictures or videos in such platforms are considered as ‘publishers’. According to Section 69 (A) of the Act, the government has the power to give directions to block public access to any information under specific circumstances. In case of non-compliance with such orders, the platforms can be considered as ‘publishers’ of the contents and fixed responsibilities accordingly.
The government of India notified ‘Information Technology Rules’ and ‘Digital Media Ethics Codes’ during the earlier part of 2021. As per the rules, online news and information platforms are required to take down particular contents within 36 hours of receiving government orders and assist law enforcement agencies. On one hand, social media platforms are cautioned by the administration for stern action for no compliance. On the other hand, social media platforms complain about overbroad, arbitrary, and disproportionate orders. They claim it to be unjustified to block users’ accounts even without serving notices on so-called objectionable content posted by them.
Twitter challenged the social media policies of the Government of India on several occasions. There was a tussle in February 2022 in the event of the removal of 500 users’ accounts that had posted critical comments about the government. In July 2022 case, Twitter initially obeyed the orders of the Information and Technology Ministry before filing the case at Karnataka High Court. It was reported that “Twitter is not trying to invalidate the law under which the order was issued, but instead argues in its suit that the government interpreted those laws too broadly.”
Soon after Twitter reached the court, the Minister and Minister of State in charge of the Information and Technology Department briefed the media about the government’s perspectives. On a press conference on the same date, July 5, 2022, without citing the Twitter case the Minister emphasized on five points.
The first explained that the growing importance of social media platforms is attributed to its reach among more and more people. Second, such platforms should be accountable and it has became a valid question globally. Third, social media platforms should be governed by a three tire mechanisms of self-regulation, industry regulation followed by government regulation. Fourth, attention should be drawn to the fact that when the social media platforms earn profits showcasing content prepared by third parties, adequate measures should be made to compensate the creative labour. Fifth, everybody have to abide by the laws of the country.
Minister of State incharge of Information Technology clarified that in India, all including foreign internet intermediaries, and platforms have right to go for judicial review. It has been calculated that there were two-crore 40 lakh consumers present in the Twitter platform in India by the middle of 2022. Though the size of the traffic is comparatively less with reference to other platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube, opinion leaders in politics, business, and intelligentsia prefer Twitter for their posts. The trend increases the importance of the platform.
Social media giants including Twitter, Facebook and others periodically publish reports on compliance with government orders for the supply of user information, blocking their posts and accounts. A media report mentioned that the half-year average number of government orders for the supply of user information during the pre-pandemic period between June and December 2019 was accounted for 650. It went up to 4,800 during the post-pandemic period between January and June 2021. Similarly, the content removal orders during the period jumped from 550 to 2,800 cases.
Media analysts felt that Twitter’s approach to Karnataka High Court could set a precedent on the question of freedom of expression in social media and “may have ramifications far beyond India.” Many countries across the globe, including the liberal United Kingdom and European nations, are moving towards control on the flow of online information. Media predictions for 2022 cautioned about the confrontation between social media firms and governments during the beginning of the calendar year. That is set to rise to further heights.
(English translation of the original Odia newsletter circulated by the author on July 1, 2022. https://tinyletter.com/pradeepmahapatra/letters/message-258. It is open-source content, free for translation and reproduction)
Dr. Pradeep Mahapatra is a retired faculty of Journalism, Berhampur University, Odisha.https://about.me/pradeepmahapatra
Twitter moves HC against content takedown orders. Business Standard (Bhubaneswar Edition) July 06, 2022
Som, Vishnu. What Twitter argues in its case vs Centre on blocking content. NDTV.com. July 05, 2022
Mampatta, Sachin P. ‘Take it down. India’s requests to social media firms at record high. Business Standard (Bhubaneswar Edition) July 07, 2022
Twitter takedown fight becomes a test case. The Telegraph (Kolkata Edition) July 08, 2022.