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Concerned about ‘potential threat to freedom of expression’ — Twitter on police visit, IT rules

Twitter is concerned about a rule that requires social media companies to appoint a compliance officer who would be held 'criminally liable' for content posted on the site.

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New Delhi: Twitter has expressed concern over the Delhi Police Special Cell’s visit to its offices in the national capital and Gurugram, as also certain provisions of the Modi government’s new rules for social media companies.

In a statement emailed in response to a query from ThePrint, a Twitter India spokesperson said it is worried about “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. We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation,” the spokesperson added in the statement, which was also released to other media outlets.

A major controversy ensued Monday as personnel of the special cell arrived at Twitter India’s offices in the National Capital Region (NCR). Delhi Police said the visits were meant to serve a notice on Twitter India with regard to certain posts by BJP leaders that were labelled “manipulated media” on the website.

The posts, which included one by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, referred to a purported Congress “toolkit” aimed at spreading “misinformation” about the Modi government’s handling of the Covid second wave and the Central Vista project.

Delhi Police, which is investigating a complaint filed by Congress leaders against the BJP’s allegations, said it wanted Twitter to disclose the information that led it to tag the posts as “manipulated media”.

The other area of Twitter’s concern is the Modi government’s Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, notified on 25 February. The deadline for compliance under the rules, which seek to curb fake news and provide additional due diligence for social media companies to comply with, expired Wednesday. Non-compliance with the rules could result in these social media companies losing their intermediary status that provides immunity from liability for content hosted by them.

So far, none of the large social media firms — Facebook, Twitter, or Google — have completed compliance under the new rules. Facebook-owned WhatsApp has challenged the rules in the Delhi High Court.

Also Read: Twitter steals its own spotlight as #BanTwitterInIndia trends after Delhi Police raids

What Twitter is concerned about

Referring to the new rules, Twitter said it was especially concerned about one that required social media companies to appoint a compliance officer who would be held “criminally liable” for content posted on the website by its users.

This was a reference to Section 4(a) of the rules that calls on major social media companies (“significant social media intermediaries”) to “appoint a chief compliance officer who shall be responsible for ensuring compliance with the Act and rules made thereunder and shall be liable in any proceedings relating to any relevant third-party information, data or communication link made available or hosted by that intermediary where he fails to ensure that such intermediary observes due diligence while discharging its duties under the Act and rules made thereunder”.  

The rules say the “chief compliance officer” should be a “key managerial personnel (sic)” or a senior employee of the firm and should be resident of India.

There is also concern in the company about the new rules requiring proactive monitoring of content, and about the government’s blanket authority to ask for information about Twitter users, the spokesperson said.

According to Twitter, these requirements would not be consistent with democratic principles.

Twitter said the IT ministry should consider publishing a standard operating procedure about the compliance process and open it for public consultation. It has also sought a three-month extension for the implementation of the rules. 

On withholding content

The social media giant said it was recently served a notice for not complying with blocking orders, and has thus withheld some content. This, it added, was in keeping with Twitter’s policy of withholding content in a certain country in light of a legal demand.

Twitter said the content mentioned in the order had originally been reported to the website in February. 

It insisted that the content requested to be blocked constitutes free speech under Indian law and international law, and this has been officially communicated to the government. According to Twitter, in line with its principles, the firm has taken no action on verified accounts of news media, journalists, activists, and politicians.

Twitter said the IT Act’s Section 69A offers social media firms limited scope to not remove content when asked to do so. 

Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000, allows the Centre to block public access to an intermediary “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to above”. 

Non-compliance, Twitter said, would have invited penalties and risks for its employees.

The firm added that it has been in frequent discussion with the IT ministry over the past months to explain the nature of the content the blocking orders have been issued for, and why it should continue to be allowed on Twitter.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: Delhi Police intimidating Twitter ruins India’s image as democracy and global freedom ranking


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