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‘When Red Fort was attacked, why were microblogging platforms opposing helping in investigation,’ asks IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad

IT Minister Ravi Shankar launched an all out attack on social media platforms, and in particular Twitter, in Parliament on Thursday. Without naming Twitter, he asked that when the Capitol Hill in Washington was being ransacked by rioters, why was it that “certain microblogging platforms” were supporting the police in investigation, but when the Red Fort—“which is a symbol of India’s dignity”— was attacked on Republic Day, these platforms were “opposing it? [the investigation]”. “These double standards won’t be tolerated,” he said.

Twitter permanently blocked Donald Trump’s account in the aftermath of the attack on the US Capitol.

Without naming Twitter—again—Prasad also asked, “what is the meaning of trending hashtags like Narendra Modi is massacring farmers”. He warned social media platforms to not spread violence and fake news, and to respect India’s rules and Constitution.

The IT Minister’s comments gain significance in the backdrop of Twitter challenging a government order, which sought to block over 1,000 Twitter accounts related to the ongoing farmers’ protest in the National Capital Region. That led to the government saying that there will be consequences for the platform if it did not comply with the order. However, it is worth noting that initially Twitter had complied with an earlier government order by temporarily blocking a flock of accounts tweeting about the protests, including the account of The Caravan, which is among India’s most credible news magazines. The platform later overturned these blocks. Twitter’s India policy head, Mahima Kaul, resigned in the wake of the recent tussle between the platform and the government.

Following the government’s second order, to block over 1,100 accounts, Twitter said that it would not block accounts of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians as it would be a violation of their fundamental right to free expression. However, the platform blocked 500 accounts that were engaged in “platform manipulation and spam,” it said. In a late night response, the government appeared to retreat, and did not say that it demanded the rest of the account blocks it ordered to be enforced.

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Twitter also revealed that over the last ten days it has been served with multiple blocking orders by MEITY under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. “Out of these, two were emergency blocking orders that we temporarily complied with but subsequently restored access to the content in a manner that we believe was consistent with Indian law. After we communicated this to MEITY, we were served with a non-compliance notice,” it said.

I&B and IT Ministry collaborating on intermediary guidelines

When asked what the government has done to check social media sites’ control over their platforms, Prasad said that the Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, and he are “revisiting the guidelines”, and will present it in Parliament after finalising it. “When you become a platform, create community guidelines and use those to adjudge what’s right and what’s not, and if these guidelines don’t have any place for India’s rules and Constitution, that is not going to work,” he said.

Prasad added:

“I would also like to gently convey to these [social] media platforms [that] freedom is important, but when you abuse it in a manner — you are showing revenge sex videos, you’re showing porn in an unbridled way, you are showing fights on the streets designed to ignite super violence in an unbridled way, family issues. I would urge social media, if you have certain internal guidelines, please measure these unbridled exposure on the standards of your own and take action.”

It is worth noting that the I&B Ministry is expected to come out with guidelines to govern streaming platforms such as Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video, according to Javadekar.

‘We have created a platform to bust fake news’

The government has created a platform to bust fake news, and “whoever posts fake news, a correction is issued on it immediately,” Prasad said. He did not specify which fake news busting platform he was talking about, but it is possible that we was referring to the fact checking unit that was set up within the Press Information Bureau in November 2019. The unit was set up to verify “suspicious” news involving central government, ministries, departments, and schemes, urging the public to send across any information that they wanted verified.

He said that if someone misuses social media to corrupt India’s election process, stern action will be taken against them. “The government will work together with the Election Commission on that, he said, adding:

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“Be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WhatsApp or any other platform, I’d urge politely that you work in India where you have millions of users, we respect that. Make money as well. But you will have to follow India’s Constitution, you have to follow India’s laws.”

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