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BJP MP Tejasvi Surya criticises Twitter for deplatforming Trump, wants intermediary liability reviewed; MediaNama’s take

Tejasvi Surya, a Member of Parliament from the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, has once again batted for reviewing how internet intermediaries are regulated. He said Twitter’s move to permanently ban outgoing US President Donald Trump is a wake-up call to the threat to democracies posed by “unregulated big tech companies”. “If they can do this to POTUS, they can do this to anyone, ” Surya said.

“Sooner India reviews intermediaries regulations, better for our democracy,” the Bangalore South MP added. 

Apart from being deplatformed from Twitter, Trump has also been blocked by Facebook and Snapchat, after he posted in support of the mob which stormed the US Capitol building earlier this week. Twitter, which had only temporarily suspended Trump’s personal account, made the ban permanent on Friday.

In September 2020, Surya had urged the government to repeal the safe harbour protections, declaring them “unconstitutional”. He called for new rules to protect fundamental rights, “especially those of the nationalistic approach”.

A bit of context on : Internet platforms (intermediaries) in India — through the IT Act, 2000 —, and elsewhere in the world, enjoy protections from liability for user content that they host. This means that if a user posts something illegal (eg., hate speech) on a platform like Twitter, it is the user who will face legal action, not Twitter itself. Essentially, social media companies are not treated as publishers, such as a newspaper would be. This legal framework allows companies to enforce their own community standards, and thereby police their own platforms.

‘Freedom of speech’

Surya explained is subsequent tweets that freedom of speech was “sacrosanct”, and that Twitter should not ban anyone, irrespective of their political affiliation. Amit Malviya, head of BJP’s IT cell, had something similar to say. He said that Twitter’s actions had less to do with Trump’s views, and more to do with “intolerance for a differing point”. “Big tech firms are now the new oligarchs,” he said.

In fact, BJP leaders are not the Indian politicians to have criticised safe harbour protections for internet platforms. Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi had said in October 2020 that safe harbour protections “cannot be accepted anymore”, and called for an overhaul of the legal framework. She had written a letter to IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad after it was reported that more than 80,000 fake social media accounts had been created to “malign” the Maharastra state government.

MediaNama’s take: Trump was deplatformed for causing real world harm, not for his political leanings

It is important to note that the outgoing US president has been deplatfromed or blocked by multiple platforms because they believed he was using his accounts to incite violence, which ultimately culminated in the violent mob attack on the US Capitol building. Twitter, for instance, defended its decision by pointing out the possibility of Trump’s statements causing real-world harm. Trump was not deplatformed because of he subscribes to a certain ideology, as Surya has suggested.

Prior to this, Twitter had added misinformation labels on Trump’s tweets. This, too, was because Trump was calling to question the legitimacy of votes cast by mail, thereby spreading misinformation. Other tweets that have been labelled include those claims of ballot dumping, charges which have not been proven, and hence are also misinformation.

The issue of deplatforming isn’t strictly about freedom of speech, but about Trump’s misuse of the vast reach that social media platforms have provided to him. In fact, Trump has gotten special treatment from Twitter because of a company policy that gives world leaders like him significant leeway.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that this is a complex subject. It is indeed worth exploring if internet platforms are acting — or should act — as referees of speech. However, it is debatable whether revoking safe harbour protections will actually help freedom of speech, as platforms are far more likely to play safe, thereby restricting greatly how their platforms will be used, and possibly leading to over-censorship.

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