Twitter-Govt Showdown: A Brief History of a Frenemy Relationship

Twitter pushed back against the government’s order stating stock phrases don’t constitute inflammatory speech. 

6 min read
Hindi Female

When Twitter launched in India on 15 July 2006, Sensex had just crossed 12,000 points, Kangana Ranaut had made her debut two months earlier, Virat Kohli was yet to play for India and hashtags were used only to check the prepaid balance in our feature phones.

15 years later, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is seen to have taken a political position in India’s ongoing farmers’ protest and the government’s aggressive efforts to push back against international voices like singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg extending their support to the movement.

On 3 February, Dorsey liked two tweets by Washington Post reporter Karen Attiah --one stating that “Rihanna has the Indian government shook” and another asking for a Twitter emoji for the farmers’ protest. Both tweets used the hashtag #FarmersProtest.

Twitter pushed back against the government’s  order stating stock phrases don’t  constitute inflammatory speech. 

As Twitter has grown over 15 years, so has its utility among politicians, journalists, activists, and celebrities. Over the last decade as the micro-blogging platform surpassed a critical mass of users, the weaponisation of Twitter has been a vital element in political campaigning and narrative building globally.

In India, Twitter began drawing attention towards itself only over the last few years with allegations of bias by both ends of the political spectrum. It’s current controversy, over temporarily witholding over 250 handles and restoring them, is just the latest in a series of run-ins with the Indian government.

As a legal and technological entity, its uneasy relationship with the current administration has seen Twitter being reminded time and again of its status as an intermediary, subject to India’s laws, and has often found itself as an unwitting arbiter of free speech and censorship in the country.

To better understand the context around the current Twitter controversy, The Quint explores the Twitter-government relationship in the past, how its litany of controversies has shaped what’s happening at present, and what the implications hold for their future relationship.

The Past

Twitter has been no stranger to controversies, be it regarding its content moderation policies, automated decision making, or even the actions of its CEO Jack Dorsey.

November 2018: Backlash against Dorsey

Dorsey’s decision to pose with the said poster that read ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’, at a roundtable discussion with Indian women journalists and activists, had landed him in a hot soup by virtue of the arguably sensitive social issues attached to what the poster implies.

On 1 December, a Rajasthan court had even directed the police to register an FIR against the Twitter CEO and begin an investigation for allegedly ‘hurting the sentiments’ of the Brahmin community.

The Rajasthan High Court on 7 April 2020 quashed the FIR filed by a right-wing group against Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and disposed of the plea for his arrest for allegedly ‘hurting the sentiment of the Brahmin community’ by posting a photograph on social media.

Twitter pushed back against the government’s  order stating stock phrases don’t  constitute inflammatory speech. 
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey holding a poster that reads ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’
(Image: Twitter)

February 2019: Dorsey Summoned for Alleged Anti Right-Wing Bias

In 2019, several right-wing Twitter users had led a protest on the streets of New Delhi against Twitter’s alleged anti right-wing bias. In February 2019, the Parliamentary Committee on IT, headed then by BJP MP Anurag Thakur (currently MoS Finance), even issued a summon to CEO Jack Dorsey.

The move to summon Dorsey followed a complaint by the Youth for Social Media Democracy, a right-leaning collective that includes Delhi BJP Spokesperson Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga.

Amid accusations of amplifying misinformation, violating privacy, and compromising data of citizens, the committee decided to summon Dorsey on the issue of an alleged pro-left-wing bias.

October 2020

Twitter on 29 October, tendered a verbal apology before the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) constituted to review the data protection bill after Leh was shown as part of China during a live broadcast, news agency ANI reported.

The government had shot off a stern letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, conveying its strong disapproval over misrepresentation of the Indian map.

Important to not that in a strongly-worded letter, Electronics & IT Ministry Secretary, Ajay Sawhney has warned the platform that such attempts raise questions about its neutrality and fairness as an intermediary.

The Present

It is this status of Twitter – as an intermediary – that the government has once again reminded the platform of.

The word ‘intermediaries’, is mentioned 27 times in the IT Act (2008). So, what is this word in the world of internet?

Intermediaries are entities that transmit, host or publish content generated by us, the users, but do not exercise editorial control over it. Think of a Facebook, YouTube or Wordpress.

Section 79 of the IT Act provides immunity to intermediaries for the content that is published by the end user.

Therefore, Twitter cannot be held guilty or legally liable for a hate speech published by an individual on its platform. However, this immunity is condtional in India, and in order to enjoy it the government wants intermediaries to effectively monitor content even more closely.

Twitter’s Pushback, Govt’s Warning to Fall in Line

Even though 1 February was supposed to be Budget 2021 day, one of the biggest stories of the day was the blocking of over 250 Twitter accounts, which have been covering the farmers’ protests and have been critical of the Centre, including those of The Caravan, and the Kisan Ekta Morcha.

The accounts were ‘withheld because of a legal demand’ from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, and remained unavailable in India for most of the day. They were subsequently restored by Twitter, which pushed back against the block in discussions with the government at a meeting on 1 February.


Incensed by the restoration of these accounts, on 3 February, in a sternly-worded letter the Union Electronics and IT Ministry informed Twitter once again, “It may be noted that as per Indian law, with which Twitter is bound to comply, Twitter is an ‘intermediary’ as defined under Section 2[1][w] of the Information Technology Act.”

The government letter also reveals that in a significant pushback, Twitter had asserted in its letter dated 1 February that, ‘stock phrases and exaggerations /crude emotional appeals do not constitute inflammatory speech in light of the judgments of the Hon’ble Supreme Court’.

The government dismissed this assertion as ‘meritless’ and cautioned the platform that it cannot sit as an appellate authority and assume the ‘role of Court and Justify non-compliance’.

In a warning to the platform, the letter concludes by stating, “It needs to be mentioned that Section 69A[3] provides for specific penal consequences in case of non-compliance of the directions issued under section 69A of the Act.”

In yet another significant move, Twitter deleted two tweets by actor Kangana Ranaut on 4 February for violating the platform’s rules of inciting violence. Ranaut is known to be close to the ruling establishment.


Future: Court Challenge or Tighter Control?

So, at this point the big question is — how would this current scenario play out and how does it shape Twitter’s presence in India in the future?

A related question is — could there be a scenario where the government can ban the social media company? Experts say this is a highly unlikely scenario.

Nikhil Pahwa, founder, Medianama, told The Quint that a more likely scenario is that the government could introduce an amendment to the Information Technology Act in order to tightly regulate and control intermediaries.

“The government has been trying to tighten the norms of due diligence for intermediaries for nearly two years now,” Pahwa said adding, “What we are seeing is that due diligence requirements are now turning into norms of enforcement.”

Another scenario that Pahwa says, could materialise Twitter appealing the government’s blocking order before court, and challenge the the orders made under section 69A of the IT Act.

The Blocking Rules do not provide for any appeals mechanism that allows intermediaries of content to go to the court when a blocking order is received.

However, this does not mean that the stakeholders can’t go to court. In the Shreya Singhal judgment, the Supreme Court specifically noted that the ‘requirement for orders to be recorded in writing indicates that they can be challenged before the courts.’

“The blocking order of entire handles is disproportionate under the Shreya Singhal judgment and does provide grounds for challenge,” Pahwa added.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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