India escalates dispute with Twitter over controversial posts

Indian government accuses social networking site of attempting to “dictate terms to the world’s largest democracy”

A vendor in New Delhi during a Covid-19 lockdown. The Indian government has accused Twitter of trying to 'dictate terms to the world’s largest democracy'. AP
A vendor in New Delhi during a Covid-19 lockdown. The Indian government has accused Twitter of trying to 'dictate terms to the world’s largest democracy'. AP

The Indian government accused Twitter of attempting to “dictate terms to the world’s largest democracy” and “defame India to hide their own follies,” escalating their dispute after the social network accused officials of intimidation.

Earlier this week, police officers visited Twitter’s New Delhi premises - vacated since March 2020 due to the pandemic - to deliver a notice in the inquiry pertaining to the labelling of posts by senior members of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP. They had tweeted out documents purporting to show opponents strategising to exploit the coronavirus for political gain.

Twitter labelled those posts as “synthetic and manipulated media” amid rival Congress Party allegations of them being forged. It was the latest escalation in a series of confrontations, triggered by a rising tide of takedown requests from the government, which the social platform has pushed back against.

The San Francisco-based micro-blogging site issued a statement Thursday describing the police visit as “intimidation tactics” and expressing concern about the government’s actions and IT rules that threaten to curb free speech.

“Protecting free speech in India is not the prerogative of only a private, for-profit foreign entity like Twitter,” India’s ministry of electronics and information technology, or MEITY, said in response.

The company’s actions are undermining India’s legal system, the government said. “Twitter refuses to comply with those very regulations in the intermediary guidelines on the basis of which it is claiming a safe harbour protection from criminal liability in India.”

Twitter has a large base in India and earns significant revenue from its operations in the country but is reluctant to set up a locally-based grievance and redress mechanism, the government said.

“Twitter needs to stop beating around the bush and comply with the laws,” MEITY wrote in a tweet on the platform it was criticising.

Delhi police now expects Twitter to provide data and materials from its investigation into the labelled posts, according to a government official who asked not to be named because they’re not authorized to speak on the matter. Twitter is perceived by local authorities as behaving not as an intermediary but a judge, the person said, adding that relations between the two sides are not healthy at all.

Twitter’s statements are “designed to impede a lawful inquiry” and the social network “has taken upon itself, in the garb of terms of service, to adjudicate the truth or otherwise of documents in the public space,” Delhi police said in a statement late Thursday.

New rules that came into effect in India this February require social intermediaries such as Twitter, Alphabet’s Google and YouTube, Facebook and its WhatsApp messaging platform to assign and appoint representatives to redress grievances. Those rules would impose penalties, including jail terms, on the assigned individuals if a company fails in its prescribed duties.

The social firms have argued strenuously against the measures, alleging some of them would infringe user privacy, and WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against the government to dispute their validity.

Updated: May 29, 2021 09:25 AM

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