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Twitter locks IT Minister out of his account, he slams violation of Rules

Sources in the IT Ministry said Prasad had been denied access to his account between 7.50 am and 8.50 am on Friday.

Written by Aashish Aryan | New Delhi |
June 26, 2021 4:00:43 am
Union Minister for Information and Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad. (File)

The ongoing tension between Twitter and the Central government ratcheted up Friday after Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology and Union Minister for Law and Justice, was locked out of his official account on the social media platform over a tweet posted by him three and a half years ago.

Sources in the IT Ministry said Prasad had been denied access to his account between 7.50 am and 8.50 am on Friday.

A spokesperson for Twitter said the action had come after the microblogging platform received a notice of violation of US copyright law by the Minister’s account.

Prasad hit back strongly, accusing Twitter of violating India’s IT Rules.

In a statement first posted on the homegrown microblogging site Koo and later on Twitter, Prasad said Twitter’s action was “in gross violation of Rule 4(8) of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021”, as the platform had failed to provide “any prior notice” before denying him access to his own account.

“It is apparent that my statements calling out the high-handedness and arbitrary actions of Twitter, particularly sharing the clips of my interviews to TV channels and its powerful impact, have clearly ruffled its feathers.

“Further, it is now apparent as to why Twitter is refusing to comply with the Intermediary Guidelines because if Twitter does comply, it would be unable to arbitrarily deny access to an individual’s account which does not suit their agenda,” Prasad said.

“Twitter’s actions indicate that they are not the harbinger of free speech that they claim to be but are only interested in running their own agenda, with the threat that if you do not toe the line they draw, they will arbitrarily remove you from their platform,” the Minister said.

However, “No matter what any platform does they will have to abide by the new IT Rules fully, and there shall be no compromise on that,” he added.

A spokesperson for Twitter said Prasad’s account had been “temporarily restricted” due to a notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which is a set of US federal laws that protect copyright and intellectual property of content on the Internet.

The said tweet, on which a copyright violation has been claimed, was shared by the Minister on December 16, 2017, and contained a video celebrating Vijay Diwas, a commemoration of India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war that led to the birth of Bangladesh.

In the tweet with the video, Prasad had said: “On #VijayDiwas, I salute all the martyrs & heroes who fought for the nation and led us to victory in 1971 war.” Sources said the video shared by Prasad paid tribute to the Indian Army, in which a composition by A R Rahman had been used as “background music”.

“The International Federation of Phonographic Industry, on behalf of Sony Music, which owns the rights to the song, flagged this as a copyright violation,” a source close to the development told The Indian Express. A Twitter spokesperson confirmed that it was this tweet on which the DMCA notice had been raised. The tweet remained withheld owing to the notice, the spokesperson said.

According to Twitter, a copy of the DMCA takedown notice, which includes details of the complaint, is sent to the “email linked to the account at the time of removal”, so that the account holder gets all the information regarding the takedown notice.

Twitter claims that it also sends the account holder instructions for filing a counter notice to the DMCA takedown notice.

Officials in the IT Ministry, however, denied that any such mail from Twitter had been received on any of the email addresses linked with Prasad’s account.

DMCA notices are common; they make up one of biggest chunks of requests received by social media intermediaries annually. Between January and June 2020, Twitter received more than 174,000 DMCA takedown notices, affecting 1.2 million accounts in all.

It complied with 57 per cent of the requests, withholding 1.1 million tweets and 1.6 million pieces of media on the platform.

Twitter has been at loggerheads with the government over making appointments of local officers in India. While the company has claimed to have appointed a resident grievance officer, a nodal contact person, and a chief compliance officer for India, Ministry officials have maintained that since the appointments are not in line with the requirements of the IT Rules, they will not be considered valid. On Thursday, the Karnataka High Court gave interim relief to Twitter’s India head Manish Maheshwari from appearing at a Ghaziabad police station over the controversial video of an assault of an elderly man.

Twitter’s action against the Minister’s account on Friday triggered bipartisan outrage. Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said that although he would not blame Twitter for action taken on the DMCA request, “however stupid & pointless the request was”, he would, as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, seek an explanation from Twitter India on the locking of Prasad’s and his own accounts.

In a tweet, Minister for Civil Aviation and Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri questioned the “deafening silence from the self-styled champions of civil liberties” on the blocking of Prasad’s account.

Over the past several days, Prasad has been sharing clips of his interviews to television channels, criticising Twitter for not complying with the IT Rules enacted in February this year. In one clip, Prasad says that Twitter should not “lecture the government on freedom of speech”.

The Minister, however, ruled out the possibility that a TV channel or anchor would have raised a copyright violation notice against his account — “in the past several years, no television channel or any anchor” had made any complaints about “copyright infringements with regard to these news clips” that he had shared on social media, he said.

Friday’s incident is the second time in less than a month that Twitter has had a run-in with a senior government official. On June 5, the platform had withdrawn — and later restored — the ‘blue tick’ verification badge from the personal handle of Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu.

Twitter had then said that it “may automatically remove the blue verified badge and verified status if the account becomes inactive or is incomplete”, which happened in the case of Naidu’s account.

On the same day, the blue verified badge on the accounts of several senior RSS functionaries and leaders, including its chief Mohan Bhagwat, was also withdrawn and later restored.

A spokesperson for Twitter later said that it could have been done by the algorithm due to the absence of a verified email address or phone number, a profile image, or display name.

“For accounts to be considered active, the user of the account must log in at least once every six months. Apart from that, blue verified badge accounts must also ensure that their account has either a verified email address or a phone number, a profile image and a display name for the account to be considered ‘complete’,” the spokesperson said.

In January, when it restarted its account verification process after a gap of three years, Twitter had changed the rules for verification. The platform says that it may remove the blue badge and verified status of an account without notice if an account changes its username (@handle), or if the owner of the account is no longer in the position at which they were verified. Twitter has also said that it reserves the right to remove the blue tick from accounts that repeatedly violate its rules and policies.

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