House panel grills Twitter on failure to comply with new rules, use of manipulated media tag

Updated on Jun 18, 2021 11:50 PM IST

The panel’s meeting with Twitter came in the backdrop of the Uttar Pradesh Police summoning Twitter India’s managing director over the amplification of a video that the police claim was manipulated to portray the attack on an elderly Muslim man as a hate crime.

Twitter’s lack of compliance could potentially end the safe harbour provided to intermediaries in the Information Technology Act(File Photo)
Twitter’s lack of compliance could potentially end the safe harbour provided to intermediaries in the Information Technology Act(File Photo)
ByDeeksha Bhardwaj, New Delhi

The parliamentary panel on information technology headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor grilled officials from social media company Twitter for almost two hours over its “lack of compliance with the new intermediary guidelines”, and asked about the application of the “manipulated media” tag, with reference to its use on posts by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, people familiar with the matter said.

Immediately after, officials from the ministry of electronics and information technology appeared before the panel and said that Twitter was not in compliance with the new rules, the people added on condition of anonymity.

Twitter’s lack of compliance could potentially end the safe harbour provided to intermediaries in the Information Technology Act, although experts caveat that it will finally be up to the courts to decide whether or not the company is entitled to such protection.

The panel’s meeting with Twitter came in the backdrop of the Uttar Pradesh Police summoning Twitter India’s managing director over the amplification of a video that the police claim was manipulated to portray the attack on an elderly Muslim man as a hate crime.

“TMC MP Mahua Moitra asked Twitter why it was not following the rules that have been laid down by the government,” one of the people cited in the first instance said. BJP MP Nishikant Dubey questioned Twitter India’s locus standi as a company. “Permission being sought from its US-headquarters cannot always be used as a defence,” the person quoted Dubey as saying. “It cannot be that every time compliance is sought from the company, it says that it will revert in 36 hours as it has to consult its offices in the US,” Dubey said.

Questions were also put to the company on the use of the manipulated media tag, with MPs pointing out that this shows Twitter acting as an editor and not an intermediary. The BJP’s Rajyavardhan Rathore also sought Twitter’s stance on pornographic content on the platform and its removal, a second person cited in the first instance said.

Dubey slammed Twitter for using “biased fact checkers”. “There cannot be different yard sticks for how Twitter acts in other countries and in India,” the second person quoted him as saying.

A third person added that Twitter told the panel that it follows its own policies even as it observes the law of the land. Twitter said in a statement issued after the meeting that it is prepared to work with the panel on the important work of safeguarding citizens’ rights online in line with its own principles of transparency, freedom of expression, and privacy. “We appreciate the opportunity to share our views before the Standing Committee on Information Technology,” a company spokesperson said. “We will also continue working alongside the Indian Government as part of our shared commitment to serve and protect the public conversation.”

The parliamentary panel on information technology called officials from Twitter and the ministry of electronics and information technology on June 18 on “prevention of misuse of social media platforms”.

The issue of the tag has been particularly contentious with Dubey hitting out at panel chairperson Tharoor for demanding an explanation from the ministry of electronics and information over the government’s decision to ask Twitter to remove the manipulated media tag from posts made by several BJP leaders. These posts shared what they claimed was a Congress toolkit (a playbook for a social media campaign) that was allegedly aimed at building a biased narrative over the Indian government’s handling of the second wave of Covid-19, and the Central Vista project. Many top BJP leaders, including its chief JP Nadda and Union ministers Smriti Irani, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Hardeep Puri, Anurag Thakur, Piyush Goyal, amplified party spokesperson Sambit Patra’s tweet on the toolkit, the first one to be tagged as manipulated media. The action prompted the government to write to Twitter twice, on May 21 and 25, asking it to remove the tag as the matter was under investigation by law enforcement agencies. This was followed by a visit from and notice to the social media firm by the Delhi Police’s special cell, which sought information from Twitter -- although the police were yet to register a case at the time.

There have been several instances of confrontation between the United States-based company and the Government of India, particularly around government’s content takedown orders and Twitter’s actions against people linked to the BJP for violation of its terms of use.

Against this backdrop, the new IT rules hardened the standoff last month, with Twitter first asking for three months to comply, raising concerns over the “core elements” of the guidelines, and flagging potential threats to the safety of its employees after the visit by the Delhi Police. The deadline for meeting the guidelines was May 25.

On Tuesday, Twitter said it appointed an interim compliance officer. The new rules have been contested by WhatsApp as well as multiple digital news websites. WhatsApp has argued that the traceability provision mandated in the guidelines would violate end to end encryption.

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