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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Governing global platforms

Actions of social media platforms indicate they believe they can flout the law with impunity. Government must ensure compliance with law.

Written by Subimal Bhattacharjee |
May 25, 2021 6:12:28 pm
Congress toolkit, Covid toolkitA team of Delhi Police's Special Cell visits the Twitter India's Lado Sarai office in connection with the probe into the alleged ''COVID toolkit'' matter, in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) has written to Twitter objecting to the “manipulated media” tag attached to the post on the alleged Congress “toolkit” tweet by the BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra. It followed that correct action with an incorrect step by sending the Delhi Police sleuths to the Twitter offices in Delhi and Gurgaon in the time of the pandemic. The reason given for the letter is that since the matter was already under investigation by law enforcement agencies, Twitter could not arbitrarily pass judgement on the validity of a tweet. On the other hand, the police move has come under severe criticism from most corners in that it reeks of intimidation and browbeating Twitter.

In the case of the toolkit expose, one cannot defend either the ruling party or the opposition. The memo shared by the BJP could be a case of manipulated media and thus propagating fake news or it might not be. That is not the moot point when we look at the latest spat between the government and Twitter. The focus instead should be clearly on three core issues.

First, if Twitter intends to label tweets as a normal course of business, it is time that they show transparency in laying down the process followed by which the said label was arrived at. After all there are multiple fact-checking outfits which might come to different conclusions, which at times might also be biased due to ideological leanings. For instance, AltNews was the platform that initially came out and called the toolkit memo a fake. On the other hand, no other fact-checking outfit has conclusively established that the memo was fake. The question is whether Twitter has a process by which they determine which fact check is more accurate or if they are conducting their own fact check. In the absence of a transparent and clear process, any attempt to label tweets can only be considered as biased and arbitrary.

The second issue is part of a larger debate happening globally and revolves around social media intermediaries evading responsibility for content posted on a platform by claiming to be neutral platforms and on the other hand actively guiding the discourse on the platform through editorial intervention. This is a clear example where Twitter is aggressively violating the neutrality of the platform by pushing one view as manipulated media without sufficient evidence. The question is if the platform is not neutral and is responsible for every bit of content, then why can’t the platform be prosecuted for illegal content, for example child sex abuse material which abounds in dark corners of the platform? Even without defending or questioning the tweet by the BJP spokesperson, it is important to clearly communicate to the platform that it cannot have its cake and eat it too. If the platform wants indemnity from content posted on it, it cannot act in an editorial manner, fashioning the message emanating from the platform through incremental acts.

The third and the most important question is why the government is forced to engage with social media intermediaries on a piecemeal basis and why can’t these tech majors be forced to follow the law of the land which has been meticulously laid down. In February this year, the government had instructed Twitter to take down certain posts and found the same posts visible by the end of the day. It took serious intervention through the MEITY to ensure that Twitter followed the legitimate and legal requests of the government. Similarly, we have recently seen WhatsApp trying to push through a new privacy policy despite pushback from the government. Given that the matter was sub judice and the same policy had been withdrawn in the EU after high-level intervention, it is definitely strange that the Indian government has not yet succeeded despite intervention. Possibly, the weakness in the legal ecosystem is the absence of heavy and punitive financial penalties. It is urgent that the government push through legislative amendments to the Information Technology Act (IT Act) and the rules for intermediaries to include heavy financial penalties for not following the law. That could probably be the trigger for data intermediaries to start following the law in word and spirit.

Two major standoffs in a year is indicative of a platform that believes it can flout the law with impunity. The government has to act and ensure that intermediaries follow the law and that is not impinging on any freedom of speech.

(The writer, a defence and cyber security analyst, is former country head of General Dynamics)

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