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In battle between big tech and state, more clarity is needed, both sides have much to uncover and declare

The clash between big tech and the state is not unique to India. Across the world, governments are grappling with this issue, struggling to arrive at a new equilibrium. Regulation of social media platforms is a contentious issue.

According to Twitter’s global transparency report, the fourth highest number of content takedown requests came from India between January and June 2021.

There is a growing push and pull between Big Tech and the state over the governance of global public platforms. A few days ago, social media platform, Twitter, moved the Karnataka High Court over the government’s orders to block certain tweets and handles under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act 2000. Twitter’s move came after the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) had asked it to comply with its orders or risk losing the safe harbour protection afforded to such platforms. This clash between big tech and the state is, however, not unique to India. Across the world, governments are grappling with this issue, struggling to arrive at a new equilibrium. Regulation of social media platforms — public forums but owned by corporations — is a contentious issue.

Twitter has alleged that the blocking orders are “procedurally and substantially non-compliant with Section 69A, are manifestly arbitrary, fail to provide the originators prior notice and are disproportionate in several cases”. In its petition, the social media giant has also argued that some of the URLs contain “political and journalistic content”, blocking which would be a violation of the right to free speech. However, Twitter’s past actions — the manner, for instance, in which it “suddenly cut the mic” of Donald Trump — lend credence to the charge that it is unaccountable. Its content moderation decisions can be accused of being shrouded in opacity, and/or taken by executives in Silicon Valley whose incentives are not aligned with what may be deemed as public interest. Considering the power of such platforms in shaping public opinion, these are matters of concern. Elon Musk’s takeover attempt — he has now pulled out of buying Twitter — would have compounded the problem. A privately owned company is under lesser public scrutiny as compared to a publicly listed one.

Yet, by asking Twitter to block tweets and handles, governments may be seeking to suppress views critical of them. According to Twitter’s global transparency report, the fourth highest number of content takedown requests came from India between January and June 2021. As reported in this paper, between February 2021 and 2022, MeitY issued 10 blocking orders, asking Twitter to take down 1,400 accounts and 175 tweets. Governments need to be more transparent in their decision-making. Since the issue has reached the courts, there is hope that, at the very least, the judiciary will help clarify the terms of engagement.

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First published on: 12-07-2022 at 03:56 IST
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