Letters sent by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) to Twitter last month asking it to remove the “manipulated media” tags on tweets of prominent political leaders, were obtained by the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) through right-to-information (RTI) requests. Neither letter cited any provision under which the government’s requests were made, IFF noted.
Last month, Twitter labelled tweets of BJP politicians including spokesperson Sambit Patra and others on the alleged toolkit prepared by Congress as “manipulated media.” On the same day, the Delhi Police started an enquiry into the veracity of the toolkit and sent a notice to the social media platform asking it to share information that it had in this regard. It was also reported that MeitY wrote to Twitter the same day registering an objection regarding the matter and asked Twitter to remove the tags. A day later, the Delhi Police’s Special Cell visited Twitter’s office in Lado Sarai in New Delhi and in Gurgaon to serve a notice in connection to a probe into this issue.
What do the letters say?
The first letter dated May 21, 2021, objected to Twitter’s “unilateral designation” of “tweets posted by prominent Indian leaders and social activists” as “manipulated media” while the veracity of the contents of the tweets in question was being investigated by the law enforcement agency. “Such tagging by Twitter appears prejudged, prejudiced, and a deliberate attempt to colour the investigation by local law enforcement agency,” the letter stated. The move puts “a question mark on the status of Twitter as an intermediary,” the letter added. For these reasons, the government asked Twitter to remove the tags.
The second letter dated May 25, 2021, acknowledged Twitter’s response to the first letter outlining its policy regarding synthetic and manipulated media, but reiterated that the issue in question was a matter of criminal investigation. The letter also said that the evidence collected by Twitter to determine that the tweets contained synthetic and manipulated media will also be used as evidence by investigation agencies and the court if the matter heads to trial. The letter further alleged that Twitter violated the principles of natural justice and urged it to be more transparent in applying its policies and give a chance to the users whose tweets have been labelled as “manipulated media” to explain their side. This time, the government asked Twitter to stop tagging specific tweets as “manipulated media” for as long as the investigation lasts.
What else did the RTI responses say?
In addition to asking for copies of the letters, the RTI’s by IFF asked the following question (quoted verbatim):
What is the provision of law under which the directions for removing the manipulated media tag from the tweets related to the alleged Congress Toolkit were issued?
In what looks like a response to this question, the RTI reply stated that the letters were sent based on the fact that MeitY is the administrator of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and deals with all matters relating to the internet including grievances and clarifications from intermediaries as per the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961. But IFF points out “the Allocation of Business Rules only list the matters in respect of which the Ministry is responsible. It does not grant the power to impose restrictions on private companies in the absence of authorising legal provisions.”
Full text of letter dated May 21, 2021
Sub: Wrongful designation of certain Tweets by prominent Indian leaders as ‘Manipulated Media’ by Twitter.
It has come to our notice that certain tweets posted by prominent Indian leaders and social activists have been designated and tagged as ‘Manipulated Media.’ These tags are in specific reference to an attempt to expose a certain ‘toolkit’ which sought to undermine, derail and demean the efforts of Government of India for fighting against COVID19 pandemic.
In this regard, please be informed that a complaint has been lodged with the local law enforcement agency by one of the concerned parties questioning the veracity of the said ‘toolkit’ and the same is being investigated by the local law enforcement agency. While the local law enforcement agency is undertaking the investigation to determine the veracity of the ‘tookit’, Twitter has unilaterally drawn a conclusion in this matter and arbitrarily tagged it as ‘Manipulated Media’. The matter is still under investigation and the enforcement agencies are yet to arrive at any definite conclusion. In the absence of any conclusive evidence, it’s surprising to note that Twitter has come around to the view that concerned post is ‘manipulated’. Such tagging by Twitter appears pre-judged, prejudiced and a deliberate attempt to colour the investigation by local law enforcement agency.
India is a sovereign democratic republic governed by the rule of law, which includes a well laid out mechanism for investigation by law enforcement agencies. In this light such unilateral designation of the ‘toolkit’ as manipulated seeks to influence and overreach the fair investigation process, which is totally unwarranted.
Further, you might be aware of the intense efforts by the government to curb the spread of COVID19 in the country and the heroic efforts of the medical professionals in this process. It needs to be mentioned here that Twitter is a widely available platform. Its services have been commendably utilized in recent days to disseminate requests for medical assistance by those in need. It’s thus baffling that at this critical juncture, Twitter has chosen unilaterally to go ahead and designate certain tweets as ‘Manipulated. This dilutes the credibility of Twitter as a neutral and unbiased platform facilitating exchange of views by the users. Such a unilateral attempt to moderate the views of users, which are still under investigation by the law enforcement agency, also puts a question mark on the status of Twitter as an “Intermediary”.
We need to emphasize that during this serious second wave of COVID because of concerted efforts by the Government, the civil society and various agencies engaged in the efforts to curb pandemic, the recovery rate has improved and the number of new COVID case have declined. Under these circumstances the frontline workers who are fearlessly working in conditions of great stress will get demotivated by sinister attempts by certain vested interests to undermine the ongoing operations.
In light of the above facts, Twitter is asked to remove the ‘Manipulated Media’ tags affixed prejudicially to certain tweets in recent days in the interests of fairness and equity.
(Dr. Pronab Mohanty, IPS)
Full text of letter dated May 25, 2021
Dear Mr. Baker,
We acknowledge the detailed reply to our letter dated 21st May 2021. More so for its granular focus on relevant facets used by Twitter for categorizing certain content as “Synthetic or Manipulated.”
While appreciating the broad objectives of Twitter’s policy regarding “Synthetic and manipulated media,” we are keen to point out that the application of the said criteria to the matter on hand needs a revisit by Twitter
As we understand your position from your letter, removal or omission of Tweets/ posts on the grounds of their containing synthetic or manipulated media is based on the grounds mentioned in your letter.
“With respect to the Tweets that are the focus of your letter, we determined that those Tweets violated our synthetic and manipulated media policies as described above. As a result, and consistent with those policies and our status as a private platform, we applied the appropriate label to those violative Tweets.”
We understand that Twitter is following its own norms while coming to an exparte conclusion in the matter under reference. At the same time, we endeavor to bring to your notice that the matter of alleged manipulation of documents displayed in the Tweets is also the focus of an expedient criminal investigation in India. The artifacts examined by Twitter will also, in time to come, be used as evidence both by the agency of investigation and the courts if the matter heads for trial. Please appreciate that convergent findings by your organization and the enforcement agency enquiring into the matter will go a long way in addressing the issue, especially since it’s observed that many of the criteria appear to be attracting the provisions of forgery, impersonation, and cheating as defined in the Indian Penal Code, and related criminal acts in force in India.
Besides, while arriving at any conclusion in this regard, the principles of Natural Justice, which form the cornerstones of any judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings worldwide, need to be adhered to. One of the fundamental tenets of Natural Justice is that “Justice should not only be done but manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.” The precepts of Natural Justice also include the maxim “Audi Alteram partem” or the rule of fair hearing, i.e., hear the other side before reaching a judgment.
Natural Justice is not just an expression of English common law or legal jurisprudence in India; it involves a procedural requirement of fairness that permeates legal practice worldwide. The principles of natural Justice are also known as Substantial Justice or Fundamental Justice or Universal Justice, or fair play in action. Though not specifically embodied in rules and are not codified, its principles comprise the primal sources of legal jurisprudence. They are also integral parts of the due process that underpins American jurisprudence.
Hence, though there are variations in applying these basic principles of law, there is a universal agreement that they must form the basis of judgments in any form of governance that belongs to the fellowship of liberal democracies. In this sense, we urge Twitter to be transparent in applying the criteria specified in its Platform Policies and afford a chance for users whose Tweets have been tagged as manipulative. Till this opportunity is given, the tagging should remain in abeyance.
And, as has been pointed out in our last letter to you, dated 21st May 2021, India is a sovereign country with robust and transparent practices infused with the principles of natural justice and laden with multiple tiers of judicial and parliamentary oversight in the field of criminal jurisprudence. It’s in good faith that we accept your practices which are summed up in the 21 May letter thus “In doing so, we certainly did not intend to impact any inquiry that a governmental entity or a law enforcement agency in India might be conducting in connection with those Tweets.” But willy-nilly, the views of Twitter will likely percolate into the fabric of the ongoing investigation and impact its outcome in a manner that will put its impartiality and objectivity in question.
Thus, it’s re-emphasized here, at the risk of repetition, that the process of tagging selected Tweets as ‘Manipulated Media’ be put on hold, at least till the process of investigation is complete.
I must end this reply by again placing on record our appreciation for Twitter for its admirable efforts in aiding countless stricken Indians in their struggles against the pandemic that has raged across the land.
(Dr. Pronab Mohanty, IPS)
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