On Friday, senior functionaries of micro-blogging site Twitter and representatives of Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) will appear before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology to offer their response to the important issue of how to safeguard citizens’ rights and prevent misuse of online social media platforms, including with regard to growing attacks on social media targeting women.
Coming less than month after the new guidelines – Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 – issued by the Narendra Modi government to regulate social media and digital media companies – came into effect, which has resulted in a tussle between companies like Twitter and WhatsApp and the government, the meeting of the Standing Committee assumes significance.
As if to send out an unqualified message to Twitter that it meant business and would go to any extent to make it fall in line, a Delhi Police team also landed up at the Gurugram office of Twitter as part of its investigation into tweets by some BJP leaders which was flagged as “manipulated media.”
Finally, in the first week of June, the Centre sent out “one last notice” to Twitter, asking it to be ready to face “consequences” if it didn’t fully implement the rules.
Before they begin their meeting with the top honchos of Twitter and government functionaries on Friday, here’s a small piece of information that members of the Parliamentary Committee must be aware of.
In the last year, Twitter received at least 12 “requests” from Indian law enforcement agencies about posts by highly-respected fact-checking website Alt-News’s co-founder Mohammed Zubair.
— Mohammed Zubair (@zoo_bear) June 14, 2021
The government and its agencies, it seems, find Zubair and his website’s actions in trying to expose fake news and disinformation, violating the country’s laws.
So far, Twitter hasn’t found anything wrong in his work. But the pressure is mounting.
Zubair isn’t the only one bearing the brunt of such carefully-orchestrated attacks – what else can you term them? – aimed at silencing those trying to expose the reality of the barrage of fake news and disinformation, most of it aimed at polarising the country to the benefit of a particular ideology.
In January, Twitter was asked to take down around 250 tweets and Twitter accounts for “making fake, intimidatory and provocative tweets.”
When the government or any of its agencies sends a request to a social media company to block a handle or take down a post that is deemed offensive or against the law, the notice is sent under the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009.
The rule, incidentally, requires the social media company to maintain complete secrecy with regard to every such request by the government. Don’t you have the right to know why and on what grounds the government decided to infringe upon your right to free speech and expression?
Don’t you have the right to know why and on what grounds the government decided to infringe upon your right to free speech and expression?
Since the MPs would be aware of the overt and covert actions by the government, including by Union Law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to browbeat the social media companies into blindly following its arbitrary diktats, here are some questions that the Standing Committee could pose to Twitter and MEITY. When they decide on their next course of action, our MPs must decide if they stand for protecting the rights of the citizens or to protect the interests of the government.
When they decide on their next course of action, our MPs must decide if they stand for protecting the rights of the citizens or to protect the interests of the government.
- How many take-down notices has the government sent to various micro-blogging sites in the last one year?
- In how many cases did the government ask the micro-blogging sites to block the accounts of users on the plea that they were violating Indian law?
- Along with these notices – one wonders why they are called requests in official communication – did the government send material to showcase or buttress its claim about the users violating the law?
- What was the procedure, if any, through which the government functionary sending the notice came to the conclusion that the account holder had violated the law?
- Did such a functionary follow the established principle of law to give the alleged offender a chance to be heard or explain his point of view? Or did they pass the order only on the basis of their own misplaced notion that they could do no wrong?
As per the law settled by the Supreme Court in the landmark judgment in Shreya Singhal versus Union of India case, there are supposed to be procedural safeguards available in case a person on social media, whose account is blocked or any post taken down, wants to question the move. But, so far, the government doesn’t seem to be following the Supreme Court judgment in letter and spirit.
- How long can the government continue to wrongly cite the so-called confidentiality clause to curb the citizens’ right to question the government and its policies.
- What is the government’s definition of “fake, intimidatory and provocative tweets?” Do death and rape threats or tweets against members of a particular community that have become a norm rather than an exception qualify as tweets worthy of action?
- Most importantly, since much of hateful propaganda is perpetuated through tweeples hiding behind a cloak of invisibility or fake/false identity, are the government and social media companies going to do something to check these handles?
- Does the government think that being anti-government is akin to harming the interests of the country? If not, why is much of its action aimed at clamping down on anti-government voices?
- How does the government intend to balance the Constitution-given right to free speech and expression with its stated purpose to check the spread of fake news and disinformation?
Maneesh Chhibber is a Consulting Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.