In an unprecedented move, a parliamentary committee sent Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey a letter to attend a parliamentary hearing on information technology on Monday, February 10, 2019. BJP member Anurag Thakur tweeted that this committee would discuss “safeguarding citizens rights on social/online news media platforms”.
Representatives from Twitter India appeared before the committee in place of Dorsey, who said he will be unable to attend the hearing because of the “short notice”.
In response to Dorsey’s absence, the parliamentary panel drafted a resolution stating that it will not meet any officials from Twitter other than Dorsey or a senior official who must appear before it by February 25. Committee members are also exploring a “breach of privilege” declaration, meaning that they can take action against whoever obstructs or hinders their duties.
India Today reports that officials from other social media platforms will also be summoned.
Events leading up
This session follows closely on the heels of a protest by Youth For Social Media Democracy on February 3 in Delhi agitating against Twitter suspending accounts of people who post right-wing views on the platform. Entrepreneur and Secretary of Incredible Bharat Foundation Rahul Kaushik tweeted his support for the protest saying it intended “to expose [Twitter’s] bias against nationalist tweeps.”
After the protest, 20 people met with Thakur to discuss Twitter systematically targeting right-wing users who voice their ideology. Vikas Pandey, leader of the protest, told the Indian Express that he was contacting other MPs for the same.
On February 8, Vice President at Twitter Colin Crowell said in a blog, “To be clear, we do not review, prioritise, or enforce our policies on the basis of political ideology. Every Tweet and every account is treated impartially. We apply our policies fairly and judiciously for all.” He also clarified that content is regulated by a global team, not by employees at Twitter India.
Counsel at Cornellia Chambers Kushan Chakraborty said, “It’s hard to say at this stage what the government’s motives are, but it seems that it [the committee] wants to be treated at par with the American Congress.”
Chakraborty’s analysis is likely accurate because a senior cabinet minister reportedly said that it was “disrespectful” for Twitter not to appear in India’s parliament after it has done so in the U.S. and Singapore. Al Jazeera also quoted Thakur saying, “They [Twitter] are taking advantage of the world’s biggest market and are unwilling to answer”.
Can the government regulate Twitter?
Yes, but not yet. Prior to this protest, in November 2018, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) drafted “intermediary guidelines” that would allow the government to impose certain rules and regulations on intermediaries for communication, like Facebook and Twitter. These guidelines have been proposed as an amendment to the Information Technology (IT) Act 2000 that regulates electronic transactions and e-commerce.
The amendment to the IT Act will ask social media platform to regulate content so that users cannot post “objectionable” or “unlawful” content that is defamatory, indecent, amoral, obscene or harmful to other users. It also asks for the removal of content that “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India”.
The amendment also requires these platforms to cooperate with any government agency concerning matters of security by tracing the source of any posted content.
Chakraborty said a greater degree of government interference means more requests by courts and authorities to take down content they deem inappropriate. He added that while this piece of legislation seemingly violates freedom of speech, it exists in a grey area of “reasonable restrictions” imposed on fundamental rights.
These amendments aren’t the only option available to the government for making the internet safer: it can first panels and committees that not only understand the workings of the internet and social media better and evaluate the impact such legislation will have on speech and expression.
In reference to the Dorsey controversy, Chakraborty said that until these regulations come into force, Dorsey can maintain his status quo.
Impact on Indians
From the BJP’s perspective, these amendments and summons to Dorsey are efforts to curb foreign intervention in the upcoming Indian elections, says Chakraborty. This is not an invalid concern, considering the number of domestic and international tech controversies like Facebook’s involvement in the Cambridge Analytica case to questions of privacy in Aadhaar.
Most recently, responding to the circulation of fake news, BJP asked Facebook-owned WhatsApp to remove end-to-end encryption to trace the origin of messages. However, WhatsApp declined to do so citing privacy concerns. The government has now issued two notices asking the platform for its game plan in tackling the issue.
Twitter has also found itself in hot water in U.S. political discourse after “verifying” accounts of hate groups and white supremacists. However, the company issued a clarification stating that the verification process is about authenticating the accounts of public figures, not endorsing their views.
The suspension of Indian right-wing users is also not unprecedented for Twitter as it has taken similar action with white nationalists associated with Britain First, a far-right group. Trump has also slammed Twitter for allegedly “shadow banning” Republicans or removing their accounts from search results in an attempt to silence them.
Pratik Sinha who runs AltNews.com, a fact-checking website, told Al Jazeera that there was no data to support claims of right-wing discrimination against Indian Twitter users and that the social media platform is simply “doing a bad job at moderating” content on its platform overall.
While these initiatives to regulate online content and protect Indian citizens from online harassment, discrimination, and the spread of fake news might be welcome, they must come with strong and incorruptible checks and balances. If the government passes the amendments allowing it to monitor online content, it must have not only strong digital infrastructure but also the spirit of non-partisanship and secularism that above all, safeguard our rights.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius.