The Narendra Modi government and Twitter were locked in a bitter war of words on Thursday over alleged attempts to curb free speech after the US-based social media giant slammed the authorities for trying to intimidate its employees in India.
Delhi police had visited one of Twitter’s offices in Gurgaon after the post of a BJP leader was tagged as “manipulated media”.
“We have concerns with regard to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global terms of service as well as with the core elements of the new IT rules,” Twitter said in a statement.
“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,” Twitter added.
“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,” the statement added.
Twitter also asked for three more months’ time to comply with the new regulations, which include the appointment of an Indian grievance officer to deal with complaints. The rules came into effect on Wednesday.
The government retaliated in the evening by questioning Twitter’s locus “to dictate its terms to the world’s largest democracy”.
“Protecting free speech in India is not the prerogative of only a private, for-profit entity like Twitter,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that the microblogging platform should disabuse itself of the notion that it could appropriate to itself the right to engage in a collaborative approach with the government of a sovereign democratic republic to “safeguard the interests of the public”.
The ministry said Twitter had a large user base in India and earned substantial revenues in the country but was reluctant to institute a redress mechanism “to whom its own users can complain when they are subjected to offensive tweets”.
“Twitter needs to stop beating around the bush and comply with the laws of the land,” the government said while asserting that the “representatives of social media companies including Twitter are and will always remain safe in India and there is no threat to their personal safety and security”.
“The only instance of scuttling free speech on Twitter is Twitter itself and its opaque policies as a result of which people’s accounts are suspended and tweets deleted arbitrarily without recourse,” the statement added.
Supporters of the Modi government have been demanding that the authorities should pull the plug on Twitter — a move that could only fan criticism against an increasingly authoritarian regime.
The Delhi police also issued a statement which accused Twitter of trying to seek “dubious sympathy when they themselves not only refuse to comply with the law of the land but also claim to be in possession of material evidence but refuse to share it with the legal authority”.
Last week, police officers had tried to serve a notice to the US firm over its failure to remove a “manipulated media” label that it had placed on a tweet by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra on an allegedly forged Covid “toolkit” that had been ascribed to the Congress.
Twitter has been locked in a battle with the government over the past few months after it refused to comply with the Centre’s requests to block messages that ridiculed the Modi administration’s mishandling of the pandemic and crude attempts to quell farmer protests over legislation that they fear would allow large companies to grab control over the country’s farm economy.
The new IT rules have turned into a red rag for social media platforms. On Wednesday, Facebook-owned WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in Delhi High Court challenging the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, arguing that its provisions were unconstitutional and against people’s fundamental right to privacy which has been upheld by the Supreme Court.
The battle over the new IT rules is now expected to escalate with neither the government nor the media platforms ready to back down.
Cyber law expert Pavan Duggal said: “India is carving out its own distinctive new legal jurisprudence on intermediaries by insisting on the criminal liability of such platforms. Hence, till such time the court of law does not set aside or stay the operations of the IT Rules, they will have to be complied with by all intermediaries.”
He added: “It is also high time that India give a solid message of deterrence. India should not allow commercial exploitation of its market by social media platforms that do not wish to comply with Indian laws. At the end of the day, a golden balance will have to be reached between ensuring the protection of sovereign interests of the country on the one hand and the protection of individual rights and privacy of individuals on the other.”