The political power behind Twitter against the Indian government


A few hours before May 26, 2021, the day of the entry into force of the new 2021 rules relating to information technology (guidelines for intermediaries and code of ethics for digital media), there was a multitude of reports and media posts on social networking sites and messaging services that platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook would be banned the next day.

Apart from some Indian platforms like Koo, most of the major social networking sites had not yet met the requirements of the IT rules of 2021. A few days after May 26, some platforms publicly announced that they were taking action to comply with the new rules, while at least one platform challenged the constitutional validity of certain provisions of the 2021 IT Regulation.

With much of India’s renamed transactional foreign policy likely to focus on strengthening US-Indian relations for some time At the time of writing, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar is in the United States to discuss, among other things, vaccines for India immediate bans are unlikely to stem from this non-compliance by US Big Tech companies.

However, IT rules are achieving their main purpose give the Indian state a vital legal weapon in the gradually escalating battle with big tech companies. Speculation about the platform ban and the ongoing standoff between Twitter and MEITY are just important side plots in this larger story.

Taming big technology

Since the revelation of Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook to profile and manipulate users with political content, the Indian government has engaged in a series of ad hoc communications with major Internet intermediaries. In July 2018, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, in a speech at the Rajya Sabha, warned that social media platforms cannot “escape their responsibility, accountability and responsibility. a broader commitment to ensure that their platforms are not used on a large scale to disseminate false facts. shown while the news is designed to incite people to commit crimes.

Ravi Shankar Prasad speaking to the media in New Delhi. Credit: PTI / Kamal Kishore / File photo

More worryingly, he said that if they don’t take adequate and swift action, then the law of complicity applies to them as well. The minister was speaking in response to the increase in the number of mass lynching incidents in India, apparently caused by the spread of false information inciting violence on social networks and messaging services. Comparing social media services to newspapers, Prasad further said that when there was provocative writing in the newspapers, the newspaper could not say it was not responsible.

Since that speech, we have seen a variety of policy proposals that ostensibly seek to hold the unbridled power of big tech companies to account. These include the strict data localization requirements in old versions of data protection legislation, now significantly watered down; the requirements proposed under the draft e-commerce policy for companies to provide rapid access to data to law enforcement agencies as well as for the development of any industry; proposals for better access to non-personal data held by intermediaries. The 2021 IT Rules are the latest addition to this mix of policies.

At the center of these policy measures is the growing narrative of “data colonialism”. Users in the Global South generate data, which platform companies analyze and process in their home jurisdiction, reaping its economic dividends and bypassing regulatory oversight in other states where they operate. This behavior of Big Tech companies has been compared to private actors who have served as catalysts for colonialism in the past. However, it looks suspect when the narrative of “data colonialism” is championed by Mukesh Ambani, the richest person in the country, and Nandan Nilekani, the influential tech czar.

Twitter line

On closer inspection, what these policies seem to do is wrest control from the big tech companies, but instead of exploring ways to redistribute that power to users, they provide greater power to the state. and large local businesses.

Such a dynamic is visible in the immediate case: The Indian state has argued that Twitter’s labeling of a BJP spokesperson’s tweet as “manipulated media” would jeopardize an ongoing police investigation. Twitter’s tagging of the tweet appears to be based on a fact-checking website whose investigation suggested that part of the tweet appeared to have been manipulated. The lack of transparency about the formal process Twitter took to ensure the decision was in line with its community guidelines highlights one of the most important issues we face in content regulation.

Platforms have far too much power and operate in a state of opacity that prevents complainants and respondents, as well as the general public, from understanding how and why they make decisions that impact freedom of expression.

However, the government’s claims also contradict its own regulatory positions. First, while there are legal provisions that allow the government to issue content removal requests, there is no legal provision under which it can request the removal of a label as “manipulated media”. Second, when regulatory efforts have been focused on imposing greater obligations on platforms to regulate harmful speech, it makes no sense to claim that they always have to wait until the end of police investigations before responding to speeches. hate or misinformation.

The use of visits from a special Delhi Police cell to deliver notices to the Twitter office continues the trend of ad hoc regulatory action often unmoved by the need for proportionality. It is not uncommon or unreasonable for regulators to demonstrate their enforcement powers as a means of obtaining compliance from large companies. However, such actions must clearly flow from the rule of law, procedural fairness and, to be both fair and effective, follow a regulatory pyramid of escalating sanctions rather than resorting to the most obvious form of intimidation. regulatory.

The unintended consequences of such thoughtless measures are immense, and the stakeholders who suffer the most are ordinary citizens. Again, little effort has been made to tackle the root of the regulatory problem – the lack of transparency. The obvious result of such measures would be more risk averse behavior on the part of platforms to avoid legal liability and evade regulatory scrutiny, with a negative impact on my and your freedom of expression online.

Amber Sinha is the Executive Director of the Center of Internet and Society. The author thanks Gurshabad Grover for his comments and editorial suggestions.

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