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Government asks Twitter to restrict profiles of porn sites xHamster, ManyVids

While the request may seem arbitrary as the handles of other major porn sites remain unblocked, this year has seen several such exchanges between the government and Twitter. 

The Indian government on Monday asked Twitter to take down the Twitter handles of adult sites xHamster and ManyVids, MediaNama has learned. The social media company disclosed the request on Thursday evening in the Lumen Database, a transparency project which contains takedown request disclosures by some tech companies from all countries. It is unclear which part of the government filed this takedown request — takedown notices under the Information Technology Act, 2000 have frequently been sent by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) over the last two years.

We have reached out to MeitY and Twitter for comments. We have also reached out to xHamster for comment, along with an attorney who has represented the CEO of ManyVids in the past. We will update this post if any of them respond to our queries.

Why it matters? While most major porn sites remain blocked in India due to an unchallenged Uttarakhand High Court ruling, it is somewhat unprecedented for the government to go after their social media accounts. Even in the case of porn websites, the Indian government had indicated in 2018 that it would only act on the basis of a court order, which the Uttarakhand High Court provided; it is unclear why the government has gone after the Twitter handles of these two companies keeping that stand in view. The Twitter account of Pornhub, arguably the biggest adult video site, remains unrestricted. It is unclear why this censorship has taken place. xHamster, whose website is blocked in India, is one of the US’s largest pornography websites.

Twitter and the Indian government

This year has seen a significant blow-up of Twitter’s relations with the Indian government over censorship and labelling of manipulated content. Here’s a timeline:

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  • February 2, 2021: Twitter is sent a request to block several handles on its platform, including those belonging to activists, media organisations, and journalists. The company briefly complies and then reverses its course.
  • February 8, 2021: Twitter is sent another notice to block more accounts related to the ongoing farmer protests. The company does not comply fully and cites freedom of expression in a post where it says it did not restrict access to accounts of journalists and activists. After meeting US-based executives, the government issues a press release saying that the company would have to comply with the law but backs down from its initial demand that the company remove all the flagged content. Twitter’s top policy executive in India, Mahima Kaul, announces her imminent departure. Days later, then-IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad indirectly accuses Twitter of resisting attempts to investigate violence at the Red Fort during the protests.
  • February 25, 2021: The government notifies the IT Rules, requiring significant social media intermediaries like Twitter to employ resident compliance, grievance redressal, and nodal officers.
  • March 8, 2021: Twitter puts out a job listing for one of the roles, the law enforcement liaison.
  • April 24, 2021: Several major accounts’ tweets criticising the government’s handling of the pandemic are restricted in India following a demand by MEITY, a story that is picked up internationally after being broken by MediaNama. The story, which was based on public filings by Twitter that other social media companies generally don’t make, was an embarrassing blow for the government.
  • May 21, 2021: Twitter adds a “manipulated content” tag to tweets by BJP leaders who posted screenshots of a purported internal document from the Indian National Congress that suggested that party workers call the Delta variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus the “Modi variant”. The government demands that Twitter remove this tag.
  • May 27, 2021: Delhi Police visits an empty Twitter office, alarming the social media company’s top executives. The company puts out a statement calling the visit an “intimidation” tactic and voices concern for the safety of its employees. The Delhi Police (and the central government) condemn the statement.
  • May 28, 2021: As Twitter’s compliance with the IT Rules lags, advocate Amit Acharya files a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court, demanding that the company comply with the law. Shortly thereafter, the law firm representing India deputes a partner-designate, Dharmendra Chatur, as an “interim” grievance officer. The Delhi High Court bristles at the interim nature of the appointment, accusing the company of misleading it on the nature of the appointment; this comes after Chatur withdraws from the role.
  • July 6, 2021: The government, echoing a stance it leaked to the press, makes it official: in its assessment, Twitter is no longer covered under intermediary liability protections, rendering it directly liable for posts by users. The Delhi High Court concurs. The company assures the court that its appointment was only ‘interim’ for tax and finance reasons and that it would “endeavour” to appoint a new grievance officer immediately, and a permanent candidate in a couple months’ time. It also hires a Chief Compliance Officer.
  • July 11, 2021: Twitter hires Vinay Prakash as Chief Grievance Officer.
  • July 28, 2021: The Delhi High Court observes that Twitter is in “total non-compliance” with the IT Rules. Justice Rekha Palli offers the company a “last opportunity” to file a “better affidavit” on who the Grievance Officer is, and why a Nodal Officer has not yet been appointed.

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I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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