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Government says it is open about content takedown orders to expose inaction of platforms, but is it really open?

Previous instances show that it has been curiously selective in being transparent about such requests to platforms.

In a meeting held on January 31, officials from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) strongly criticised Google, Twitter, and Facebook for not doing enough to remove fake news on their platforms, forcing the government to issue content takedown orders, Reuters reported.

The government officials urged the platforms to do more on their own to combat misinformation because content takedown orders draw international criticism for suppressing free expression, damaging the public image of the government. When a Google official suggested that government can keep takedown requests confidential to avoid negative publicity, the government officials rejected the suggestion saying that such takedowns publicise how tech companies aren’t doing enough to tackle fake news on their own, the report said.

India ranks among the top three countries that ask Google to remove the most content, citing defamation, privacy or security, and religious offence as some of the primary reasons. India is also the fourth-largest submitter of requests to Twitter, accounting for 11% of global requests. The government largely relies on the powers under Section 69A of the IT Act to issue content takedown orders and has received widespread criticism for censorship and suppression of free speech. But now, not only does the government appear to defend itself saying it issues such takedown orders only because platforms don’t do enough, but it also suggests that the government is open about content takedown requests.

Is the government really open about content takedown orders?

In a few instances, yes: The government is not under any obligation to disclose content takedown orders issued under Section 69A of the IT Act although it has to record such orders in writing for review by a committee. However, there are many instances when it has decided to disclose these decisions such as when it blocked Chinese apps or, more recently, when it asked YouTube to block channels that allegedly operated from Pakistani and spread anti-India content. In both these examples, the government, elaborated on why it was issuing the order.

But in the majority of the cases, no: There are many more instances where the government has declined to reveal any information on takedown orders. For example, earlier in 2021, Twitter was ordered to block access to several prominent Indian accounts including multiple anti-establishment commentators and organisations representing protesting farmers. But when asked to disclose details of the order, the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology refused saying blocking orders under 69A are subject to “strict confidentiality.” Then in April 2021, Twitter complied with government requests to censor 52 tweets that mostly criticised India’s handling of the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, and once again, there was no explanation from the government for the same. In October last year, around 24 tweets and accounts that put up pro-secessionist content pertaining to Kashmir and Punjab were withheld in India by Twitter based on government orders, but no official disclosure was made by the government.

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MediaNama’s take: In most cases, the government declines to reveal reasoning behind content takedown orders. This is contradictory to the government’s stance in the January 31 meeting where it said it wants to keep content takedowns public. From what it looks like, the government is happy to explain when the content takedown doesn’t portray the government in bad light such as when it is taking action against security concerns posed by Chinese apps or misinformation spread by Pakistani operatives. But when it comes to takedowns of content that’s critical of the government or content that is politically or religiously sensitive, the government conveniently hides behind the confidentiality offered by Section 69A of the IT Act 2000.

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