The IT ministry has made it clear that Twitter has no locus in deciding India’s policy framework. But Twitter has chosen to treat the issue as one that concerns freedom of expression. Can Big Tech be allowed to define the policy paradigm?
The established rules of the country will define the policy paradigm. Extraneous forces cannot define it. I am sure even our rivals won’t be able to show one instance of this Government coming under pressure and deciding on policies. Let me make that very clear.
The platform must develop a voluntary verification mechanism where users voluntarily verify their accounts. The Government has no role in this. Yes, the Government will certainly step in if there are violations and that is the role of a government in a country governed by law. Laws are put in place to check deviant behaviour. We will go the extra mile to protect the interests of consumers while regulating Big Tech.
Going by the response of the European Union and the US, the debate has shifted from whether you should regulate Big Tech to how you plan to regulate them.
The Intermediary Guidelines have not suddenly come out of nothing. There has been constant pressure from the public. There were two judgments of the Supreme Court. In 2018, in the Prajwala case, the court insisted on appropriate guidelines against sexual abuse of women and children. It was followed by a case in September 2019 that related to Facebook, where the Supreme Court categorically directed that the offensive messages leading to violence must be properly investigated as far as the origin was concerned. There were various parliamentary debates, including by parliamentary committees, where there was a unanimous resolve to address the issue of fake news, abuse of women’s dignity, child pornography and various other matters. There was later a larger consultation where 171 comments and 80 counter-comments came. Stakeholders like social media platforms were also invited. The issue is not of the use of social media but about the abuse and misuse of social media. If a distraught mother is seeking relief against her daughter’s photograph being shared by her ex-boyfriend, someone is being defamed. Journalists, editors and now even judges are being trolled and some people are making it a habit to promote violence, riots and terrorism. There should definitely be a forum for redress.
What will India’s approach to regulation be founded on?
Regarding WhatsApp, the Government is firm that ordinary messages shall not be interfered with at all. They will go on as usual. This point should be emphasised. There is immense disinformation about the Government’s intent. We are not playing Big Brother. In fact, all we are doing is protecting consumer interest by bringing in these regulations.
The Government, through the guidelines, has provided for one obligation, that is, a message which has led to serious crime against the sovereignty and integrity of India, or affects the dignity of women and incites or promotes sexual abuse of children, has to be guided by the law and, in such cases, the origin of the message has to be disclosed to reveal who started the mischief. If the message originated across the border, then who amplified this in India should be found out. Further, this will be sought only when other less intrusive methods are not working.
“Under the guidelines, there is an obligation that if any account is to be blocked, a hearing has to be given and reasons for the action furnished. Any question of regulating a tech company is entirely misplaced. But they cannot say that they are immune from the laws of India”
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Such information has been sought in other countries as well. There is a joint statement of July 2019 by the governments of the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada which concludes that tech companies should “include mechanisms in the design of their encrypted products and services whereby governments, acting with appropriate legal authority, can gain access to data in a readable and usable format”. We have seen the damage fake news can inflict, especially when targeted by leveraging the unique digital footprint of users. The US election was a revelation. So, unsupervised social media is no longer an option. We are being careful in calibrating our intervention so that we do not deny the benefits that accrue from social media.
Significant social media companies having more than 50 lakh users must appoint a grievance officer, a compliance officer and a nodal officer—all based in India with their addresses publicly known, where a victim of abuse can seek settlement of grievance, to be disposed of within 15 days. Every month, a report is to be published on the website giving details of complaints received and action taken.
The Government has said that the conduct of Twitter has been obfuscatory, diversionary and tendentious. How do you propose to ensure transparent functioning of platforms like Twitter?
Twitter’s actions clearly demonstrate its reluctance to comply with rules. Worse, there are many examples demonstrating their prejudice; instead of behaving like a neutral arbiter. That’s unacceptable and will not go unchallenged. We are happy that social platforms have extensive business in India. WhatsApp, Facebook and LinkedIn have the biggest user base in India. Their combined user base is more than 100 crore.
These are private companies that can always conduct their business. But they cannot flout the rule of law and then mask the infraction as an encroachment on freedom. They should know that India is the largest democracy governed by a Constitution where freedom of speech and also freedom of the press is a recognised fundamental right. There is a robust and independent judiciary, a vibrant media and, above all, the accountability of the Government to the people who elect their governments through periodic elections.
“The intermediary guidelines have not suddenly come out of nothing. There has been constant pressure from the public. There were two judgments of the Supreme Court. The Court insisted on appropriate guidelines against sexual abuse of women and children. The Court categorically directed that offensive messages leading to violence must be properly investigated”
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Platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter have often blurred the distinction between being a tech company and a media entity. When it comes to grabbing advertising, they are a media company. But when it comes to regulatory questions on uncurated stories on their platform, they take refuge behind being tech companies. Will the proposed regulatory framework address the dichotomy?
Absolutely. It is like running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Like the Indian media, they have to own responsibility for the content they display on their platforms. Especially since, they often host unverified news which at times is patently fake. Unfortunately, this attracts eyeballs and, of course, advertising. I asked them if this wasn’t deliberately misleading the consumer. In the process, they are also undermining the business model of Indian media. They should ask themselves why they are not governed by the same standards that apply to news curating in organised media. My simple message to them is: Wake up and smell the coffee.
These platforms cannot take a position that they will do good business in India—of course, we welcome it—earn good money in India through the users and advertisements, but they will not follow the Constitution and the rules and regulations. This is totally unacceptable. India shall never compromise its digital sovereignty.
Do you think Twitter has a political agenda in India? The reason for this question is their higher frequency in blocking allegedly conservative handles compared to so-called liberal ones.
They should answer this question. We routinely get complaints about Twitter’s editorialising of content. They decide whose account is to be blocked or whose not; what tag should be given to a particular message. This is all done without any notice or intimation or hearing for the users affected by these unilateral actions. It is a case of different rules for different people. This is not tenable. Definitely not any longer. You have to be responsible for your actions. We are an elected government and are accountable to the people and will do everything to honour this commitment even if it runs afoul of some echo chambers.
“Regarding Whatsapp, the government is firm that ordinary messages shall not be interfered with at all. They will go on as usual. This point should be emphasised. There is immense disinformation about the government’s intent. All we are doing is protecting consumer interest”
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Twitter has acquired the power of “de-platforming” individuals. Is this acceptable behaviour on the part of a public platform?
Under the guidelines, there is an obligation that if any account is to be blocked, a hearing has to be given and reasons for the action furnished. Any question of regulating a technological company is entirely misplaced in the present context. They cannot say that they are immune from the constitutional laws of India and that they will only follow the law of the US or their own regulations. This premise is plainly unacceptable.
Tech companies comply with law enforcement and national security requests fully in countries like the US, UK and Australia. You have said that they resist such demands in India. What explains their dual behaviour?
Exactly. What is good for the sauce should be good for the gander. I wish to highlight the double standards of these giant global platforms. They take tough decisions when Capitol Hill in Washington is invaded and they also block the account of the then US president. But when it comes to India, it is a different formula. They can no longer take India for granted. All we ask is that they be fair. Same rules for everyone. Is that an extraordinary thing to ask? Is that a threat to personal freedom?
For example, during the farmers’ protests, when the Red Fort—India’s pride, where the prime minister unfurls the Indian flag on Independence Day—was vandalised by miscreants and their supporters with swords, policemen were beaten and thrown into a 20-feet deep ditch, then Twitter described it as freedom of speech. They showed Ladakh as part of China and an effort of over a fortnight was required to get that changed. On the request made by the government of Singapore, they immediately took down the name “Singapore variant” to describe that particular Covid variant. But in the case of India, they did not remove “Indian variant”. This is clearly double standards.
There are voices that say India should have its own social media platforms that take on the global giants. Do you think the Government should play a facilitating role, while maintaining an arm’s length in incubating these companies?
People will, sooner if not later, vote with their feet when the options are available. You can fool some people some of the time, but you cannot fool everyone all the time. Many Indian social media platforms, such as Koo, are emerging and the Government welcomes these initiatives.