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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Govt pulls up Twitter: ‘differential treatment on Capitol Hill, Red Fort’

Stating that “India has a robust mechanism for protection of freedom of speech and expression”, the statement said that “freedom of expression is not absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions”.

Written by Aashish Aryan | New Delhi |
Updated: February 11, 2021 7:44:05 am
Capitol Hill, Red Fort violence, Govt pulls up Twitter, differential treatment by twitter, Greta Thunberg, freedom of expression, Indian express newsThe toolkit on the farmers’ protest had come under the police scanner after Swedish environmental activist Thunberg tweeted it on February 3.

Comparing the “action taken by Twitter during the Capitol Hill episode and… the disturbance in Red Fort”, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) on Wednesday “expressed strong displeasure” to Twitter at what it called its “differential treatment”.

“A deep sense of disappointment at seeing Twitter side not with ‘freedom of expression’ but rather with those who seek to abuse such freedom and provoke disturbance to public order, was conveyed to the Twitter representative,” the ministry said in a strongly-worded statement released after a two-hour-long virtual meeting between its officials and senior Twitter executives.

The meeting was attended by IT Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney; Monique Meche, Twitter’s vice-president, global public policy; and Jim Baker, Twitter’s deputy general counsel and vice-president, legal. Ahead of the meeting, Twitter, in a blogpost, had listed action taken against accounts red-flagged by the ministry.

“Secretary took up the issue of using a hashtag on ‘farmer genocide’ with Twitter executives and expressed strong displeasure on the way Twitter acted after an emergency order was issued to remove this hashtag and content related to that. Spreading misinformation using an incendiary and baseless hashtag referring to ‘farmer genocide’ at a time when such irresponsible content can provoke and inflame the situation is neither journalistic freedom nor freedom of expression as envisaged under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. Despite the attention of Twitter being drawn to such content by the Government through a lawful process, the platform allowed the content with this hashtag to continue, which was extremely unfortunate,” said the statement.

“Secretary also mentioned that revelations around a certain “Toolkit” has made it evident that a strong social media campaign was planned in a foreign country around farmers protest. Misuse of Twitter’s platform for execution of such campaigns designed to create disharmony and unrest in India is unacceptable and Twitter must take strong action against such well-coordinated campaigns against India, through compliance with the applicable law of the land,” it said.

Earlier this month, the Delhi Police registered an FIR on charges of “sedition”, “criminal conspiracy” and “promoting hatred” against the creators of the ‘toolkit’ on the farmers’ protest, which was shared by climate activist Greta Thunberg.

“Lawfully passed orders are binding on any business entity. They must be obeyed immediately. If they are executed days later, it becomes meaningless. Secretary expressed his deep disappointment to Twitter leadership about the manner in which Twitter has unwillingly, grudgingly and with great delay complied with the substantial parts of the order. He took this opportunity to remind Twitter that in India, its Constitution and laws are supreme. It is expected that responsible entities not only reaffirm but remain committed to compliance to the law of land,” the ministry said.

“The Govt. conveyed to the Twitter leadership that the manner in which Twitter officially allows fake, unverified, anonymous and automated bot accounts to be operated on its platform, raises doubts about its commitment to transparency and healthy conversation on this platform,” it said.

The statement said that the Secretary highlighted that Twitter was welcome to do business in India. “Due to India’s conducive business environment, open Internet and firm commitment to the freedom of expression, Twitter as a platform has grown significantly in India in the last few years…Twitter, as a business entity working in India must also respect Indian laws and democratic institutions.”

“Twitter leadership affirmed their commitment towards following Indian laws and rules. They also expressed their continuing commitment towards building their services in India. They have also requested for better engagement between Government of India and Twitter’s global team,” said the statement.

Stating that “India has a robust mechanism for protection of freedom of speech and expression”, the statement said that “freedom of expression is not absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions”.

In a blogpost earlier in the day, Twitter had listed action taken on the ministry’s notices, saying it had “suspended more than 500 accounts” and “withheld a portion of the accounts identified in the blocking orders” of the MeitY. However, it also said that it had not “taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians”, as it “would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law”.

“We took a range of enforcement actions — including permanent suspension in certain cases — against more than 500 accounts escalated across all MeitY orders for clear violations of Twitter’s Rules,” it said, adding that it also “took steps to reduce the visibility of the hashtags containing harmful content”.

“Separately, today, we have withheld a portion of the accounts identified in the blocking orders under our Country Withheld Content policy within India only. These accounts continue to be available outside of India. Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law,” it said.

Twitter said that while it had “temporarily” complied with some of the “emergency blocking orders”, it later decided to restore the said accounts “in a manner that we believe was consistent with Indian law”.

“We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve. We are exploring options under Indian law – both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted. We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter, and strongly believe that the Tweets should flow,” it said.

The blogpost had irked ministry officials, who initially hinted that the meeting had been postponed. However, the meeting was back on track by evening but not before the IT ministry had expressed its displeasure.

In a pointed release, shared first on Koo, a homegrown microblogging app, and later on Twitter, the ministry said Twitter’s blogpost was “unusual”. “Upon the request of Twitter seeking a meeting with the Govt., the Secretary IT was to engage with senior management of Twitter. In this light a blogpost published prior to this engagement is unusual. Govt will share its response soon,” it said.

On January 31, it was the hashtag “farmer genocide” which had drawn the government’s attention to Twitter accounts, prompting it to send a notice to the platform under section 69 A of the IT Act. The ministry had asked Twitter to block 257 accounts, saying these handles were “spreading misinformation” about the farmers’ protest, which had the potential to “lead to imminent violence affecting public order situation in the country”.

Twitter had responded by blocking some of the accounts, but had later unblocked them.

On February 4, the ministry sent Twitter a new list of nearly 1,200 accounts, asking it to either suspend or block them in India, sources said. These accounts, the notice had said, “were flagged by security agencies as accounts of Khalistan sympathisers or backed by Pakistan”.

“Many of these accounts were also automated bots that were used for sharing and amplifying misinformation and provocative content on the farmers’ protests. However, Twitter has not yet complied with this order,” senior government officials had then told The Indian Express.

On February 8, Twitter said that it reviewed every report that it received from the government “as expeditiously as possible” and took appropriate action while making sure that the platform held firm to its fundamental values and commitment to protect “public conversation”. A day later, the company said it had reached out to IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad for a “formal dialogue”.

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Prasad, however, refused to meet them, following which the IT Secretary presided over the meeting, senior officials said.

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