Social media companies will need to follow India’s laws or face strict action, minister for electronics and information technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said in Parliament on Thursday, while adding that the government is working on new rules to make companies such as Twitter and Facebook more responsive to directions and accountable to Indian laws.
Prasad said the government was in the favour of freedom of speech and expression but warned that the abuse of social media platforms for harms such as fake news and election manipulation will not be tolerated.
“We respect social media. We also respect criticism. But we will not tolerate the misuse of social media for fake news. Today, from here in Parliament, I politely remind the companies, whether it is Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or WhatsApp or anyone, they are free to work in India, do business, but they need to respect the Indian Constitution, they need to respect the Indian law,” he said.
The minister also drew a comparison between the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and the January 26 violence at Red Fort, saying that “certain microblogging platforms” took action in the first case but dragged their feet during the incident in India. “This double standard will not work here,” he warned.
The minister’s comments follow days of tensions between the government and Twitter over taking down more than 1,300 accounts or posts in connection with the farmers’ protest and the violence that occurred on January 26. The social media company only partially complied with the order, saying that the directions were not consistent with Indian law.
“When a company becomes a platform, you make the rules to assess what is wrong and what is right. But that doesn’t mean that the laws of India will not apply to them,” Prasad said, after telling Parliament that his ministry and the information and broadcasting ministry were working on new guidelines.
The government in reply to an unstarred question in Rajya Sabha also asserted that the rules under the IT Act, 2000, are in the process of being amended. “These Rules are being amended to make social media platforms more responsive and accountable to Indian laws. These Rules will also make digital media platforms to adhere to Code of Ethics.”
According to officials familiar with the matter, the guidelines are likely to be finalised soon to ensure that social media platforms “take responsibility” and be held accountable for the content shared on them. As intermediaries, the companies are not liable to face action for posts made by users.
“The current guidelines state that if the government asks the intermediary to take down posts, then they have to oblige,” said an official familiar with the matter, asking not to be named.
“The new guidelines are likely to strengthen the procedures so companies can’t say they are an intermediary and escape responsibility,” the official added. “They can’t use the excuse that their permissions have to come from a centre in some other part of the world. Such delays aren’t acceptable.”
The official added that ministry continuously works to update the rules and keep them in consonance with the times.
Legal experts said the row between Twitter and the government is more a question of rule of law than a free speech issue. “We have a Constitutional right to free speech but there are also restrictions that can be laid down under Article 19(2). Section 69(A) of the IT Act gives the government the right to block such content and rules have been formed. Whether that is for right or wrong is a different matter but the government has the legal power to do it,” said NS Nappinai, advocate, Supreme Court, and founder of Cyber Saathi.
“There is no option for a company, either under the law or under the rules, to not comply with the order. In this case, Twitter had to either comply or contest the directions in a court of law,” she said, adding that the company’s actions opens it up to criminal prosecution.
The intermediary guidelines, initially floated in 2018, is expected to introduce a slew of changes, including allowing government to trace unlawful content, proactively identifying and removing or disabling public access to unlawful information or content, and making it mandatory for any intermediary with more than five million users in India to be an entity to mandatorily be a company incorporated in India.
“Rule 3(2) prohibits intermediaries from knowingly hosting or publishing information which amongst other things may be ‘grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever’,” the draft guidelines hosted on Meity’s website state.
Social media companies such as Twitter and Facebook function as media companies, essentially making money off ads, but refusing to take accountability for content. But legal experts have said that the nature of the laws give the government broad powers and there is little transparency around online content take downs, which leaves room for various interpretation.
Apar Gupta, Internet Freedom Foundation trustee, said that the government held public consultations on the draft guidelines. “The changes, if any have been made, are not known,” Gupta said. “This also comes on the heels of a case pending before the Supreme Court. The draft, if implemented in its current form, will result in an attack on freedom of expression. Automated take downs, say for a filter of illegality, will omit the context of the post and result in a larger take down of content. This will harm free expression and conversation on social media.”
Disclosures from Twitter to the Lumen database also showed that one of the accounts the company blocked on the government’s request was that of Rajya Sabha member Sukhram Singh Yadav, deepening questions over the government’s prerogative as well as Twitter’s conduct, which previously said that it had not taken action against accounts of journalists, activists and politicians.