New Delhi: Twitter’s statement expressing concern with what it said were “intimidation tactics” in India was met with an angry response from India’s Ministry of Electronics and IT within a few hours.
Twitter on Thursday said it was concerned about its employees in India – and the potential threat to freedom of expression – in the aftermath of the use of “intimidation tactics” by the police ever since it added a ‘manipulated media’ tag to tweets by senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders.
Hours after Twitter released its statement, the Ministry of Electronics and IT tweeted its own statement asking the social media site to “stop beating around the bush and comply with the laws of the land”. The uniquely worded government statement also asked Twitter to disabuse itself of the grandiosity of hoping for a collaborative approach with India.
Press Release by Ministry of Electronics and IT in response to the statements made by Twitter Inc. pic.twitter.com/hQxCGuoEaG
— Ministry of Electronics & IT (@GoI_MeitY) May 27, 2021
As The Wire has reported, scores of officers from Delhi Police’s Special Cell arrived at Twitter India’s offices in Delhi and Gurgaon on Monday evening ostensibly in order to understand why the social media platform had chosen to label a controversial tweet by BJP chief spokesperson Sambit Patra about a purported Congress ‘toolkit” as “manipulated media”.
The raid came two days after the Narendra Modi government warned Twitter to remove the label – seen as a setback to the BJP and a victory for the Congress – and marked a dramatic escalation in official pressure on the company.
In successive tweets through its ‘Twitter Public Policy’ (@Policy) handle, Twitter referred to the police visit to its offices as “intimidation tactics”.
“We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules.”
Indian Express has reported that Delhi Police, like the Union government, has also taken exception to Twitter’s statement, calling it “mendacious” and “designed to impede a lawful inquiry…”.
Twitter said that to keep its services in corralling COVID-19 resources available in the country, “it will strive to comply with applicable law in India.”
“But, just as we do around the world, we will continue to be strictly guided by principles of transparency, a commitment to empowering every voice on the service, and protecting freedom of expression and privacy under the rule of law,” Twitter noted.
The social media giant also expressed misgivings on the government’s new Information Technology rules, saying that it plans to push for changes to elements of the rules that inhibit free and open public conversation.
Social media companies are required to abide by several clauses of the recently announced Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules which come into effect amidst countrywide criticism today, May 27.
The rules also affect the functioning of online media outlets and OTT platforms. Their most onerous requirement is that social media platforms appoint a grievance officer to field potentially hundreds of thousands of ‘complaints’ about content on their site, catalogue them and inform the government about how they have been resolved.
Twitter also said that it will continue “constructive dialogue” with the Centre on the Rules, to which the Centre later took exception.
We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation. We will continue our constructive dialogue with the Indian Government and believe it is critical to adopt a collaborative approach.
— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) May 27, 2021
The Centre, in its response, said that Twitter’s statement was an attempt to defame India and pointed out that it was a firm based in the United States – implying that it had little ground to ask for constructive dialogue.
“Twitter’s statement is an attempt to dictate its terms to the world’s largest democracy,” the Centre noted.
Accusing Twitter of refusal to comply with regulations, it also asked why, “if Twitter is so committed” it did not set up a mechanism in India through which it can address the same purported concerns of that the government has sought to address through the IT Rules.
The government also claims that the IT Rules were finalised after the “widest possible consultations”, which a Right to Information reply has already found to be an untrue claim.
The spectre of the IT Rules diminishing forever the scope of privacy and freedom has dominated public discourse in the past few days.
In a press release, Centre on Wednesday said it recognises that ‘right to privacy’ is a fundamental right and is committed to ensure the same to its citizens. However, it added that “as per all established judicial dictum, no fundamental right, including the right to privacy, is absolute and is subject to reasonable restrictions”, Indian Express reported.
The Centre’s response comes after WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in the Delhi high court challenging the government’s new digital rules, arguing that the requirement for the company to provide access to encrypted messages will break privacy protections. WhatsApp has close to 450 million users in India.
Twitter’s full statement on Thursday, tweeted across six posts, is appended below:
“Twitter is deeply committed to the people of India. Our service has proven vital for the public conversation and a source of support for people during the pandemic.
“To keep our service available, we will strive to comply with applicable law in India.
“But, just as we do around the world, we will continue to be strictly guided by principles of transparency, a commitment to empowering every voice on the service, and protecting freedom of expression and privacy under the rule of law.
“Right now, we are concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve.
“We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules.
“We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation. We will continue our constructive dialogue with the Indian Government and believe it is critical to adopt a collaborative approach.
“We believe that it is the collective responsibility of elected officials, industry, and civil society to safeguard the interests of the public.”