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Twitter blocked content in India after being served non compliance notice; voices concerns for employee safety

Twitter

Days after the Delhi Police served a notice and visited two offices of Twitter in connection with an alleged Indian National Congress-created toolkit, the micro-blogging platform said that it is concerned for its employees after the usage of ‘intimidation tactics by the police’. Meanwhile, Twitter also requested the Centre to provide 3 months extension to implement the new IT Rules 2021, said it has censored content after receiving a notice of non compliance from the Indian government. This content, it believes, constitutes legal speech.

A Twitter spokesperson told MediaNama 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. We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules.”

Why is Twitter concerned about intimidation?

Last week, Twitter had labelled tweets of BJP politicians including spokesperson Sambit Patra and others on the alleged toolkit prepared by Congress as “manipulated media”. The tweets alleged that Congress had created this toolkit to defame the Prime Minister and ‘undermine’ the government’s Covid-19 vaccination policy. Soon after Delhi Police sent a notice to Twitter seeking clarification on the usage of the term “manipulated media” since the matter was under investigation.“It appears that Twitter has some information that is not known to us on basis of which they’ve classified it as such,” news agency ANI said while quoting an anonymous Delhi police official.

Following that, on Monday night, the Delhi Police’s Special Cell visited the Twitter office in Lado Sarai in New Delhi and in Gurgaon to serve a notice in this regard. “This was necessitated as we wanted to ascertain who is the right person to serve a notice, as replies by Twitter India MD have been very ambiguous,” he told the news agency.

Contests legitimacy of order seeking to block content

Twitter says it was recently served with a non-compliance notice and has withheld a portion of the content identified in the blocking order under its Country Withheld Content policy. The content identified was originally reported to it in the blocking orders issued since February 2021, it says.

The company maintains that the content reported in the original order constitutes protected, legitimate free speech, under Indian and international law, and that it has formally communicated this to the Government. It says it has not taken any action against verified accounts of consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians, in keeping with its principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression.

In particular, it highlights the limited scope under Section 69A given to an intermediary to defend content, and says that it has “been compelled to withhold” content in response to a non-compliance notice. Not doing so poses penal consequences with many risks for Twitter employees, the company says.

On Wednesday, Twitter withheld the account belonging to actor Sushant Singh (which it later restored) and iScrew, an anonymous user who posts Gujarat-related COVID-19 information among others. In his tweets, Singh (@sushant_says) has been critical of the Prime Minister and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The Age of Bananas (@iScrew) whose account was also blocked by Twitter, posted regular updates on COVID-19 situation in the state of Gujarat. MediaNama has reached out to Twitter for comments.

Twitter’s position regarding the IT Rules 2021

On the IT Rules 2021, Twitter has said that to keep its service available, “we will strive to comply with applicable law in India. But, just as we do around the world, we will continue to be strictly guided by principles of transparency, a commitment to empowering every voice on the service, and protecting freedom of expression and privacy under the rule of law.”

Twitter’s areas of concern: On May 26, the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Ethics Code) Rules 2021 came into force, which requires significant social media intermediaries such as Twitter to comply with additional due diligence — such as appointing a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person, resident grievance officer. Twitters concerns are around these appointments:

  • Criminal liability: Twitter has voiced concern about making an individual (the Chief Compliance Officer) criminally liable for content on the platform
  • Proactive Monitoring:  requirements for proactive monitoring, and the blanket authority to seek information about our customers. This represents dangerous overreach that is inconsistent with open, democratic principles.

What Twitter wants:

  • Extension of deadline for implementation of IT Rules: By 3 months. Meanwhile, it says, that it continues to accept grievances from users and law enforcement via its existing grievance redressal channel under the new Rules.
  • Public consultation for procedural aspects of IT Rules: For the Ministry of Electronics and IT to publish Standard Operating Protocols on procedural aspects of compliance with the IT Rules for public consultation.

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