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In these days of technology explosion, people are information- fogged. Many are more interested to read instant microblogs than full-blown blogs or newspaper articles to get news, especially on political goings-on. Twitter is a microblogging app widely used. The users convey their opinion compressed in minimum words. That spreads faster and often gets amplified. Government departments of many democracies make use of Twitter to convey their policies within no time to people.
Certainly, during the Covid-19 second wave in India, Twitter was the most used social media platform to help the needy expeditiously. However, during the protests about the repeal of CAA, after the abrogation of Art-370 and in the recent Farmers agitation against the three new Farm-laws, opponents used their free-speech to portray India in a poor light to the world on Twitter with their # Hashtag campaigns. Twitter, of late, has been behaving, as a torch-bearer of free speech but selectively according to its own guidelines.
Freedom of Speech is not an “absolute” fundamental right, (as is in the U.S.,) in the Indian Constitution. India being a liberal democracy, Free Speech however is much-valued. Knowing that without freedom of speech other fundamental rights would be trampled upon, it has its place in the statute. Free-speech is called the key-stone of all fundamental rights. However, the founding father of the Constitution, Dr B. R. Ambedkar argued in the constituent assembly, while framing the laws, that it (free-speech) should not be made “absolute”. This is, keeping in view the sovereignty and integrity of the country. Then, there were no 24/7 satellite T.V. channels, no Internet, no social media platforms disseminating messages (good or bad) in a fraction of a second. They did not envision the chaos present now. Yet, in their wisdom they kept the caveat/check on free-speech.
All democracies in the world are facing acute challenges from social media with the diffusion of disinformation and fake news. The Central Government on 25 February 2021, laid down some rules and regulations/guidelines for all Intermediaries i.e., Search Engines (in addition to the: Information Technology Intermediary Guidelines Rules-2011 of UPA Govt). These include Digital Media Ethic Code i.e., the nature of duties to be discharged under the conditions of ‘due diligence’ so as to get exemptions for the acts of the third party (the users). Google, YouTube, Facebook-WhatsApp (barring the encryption issue pending in court), Amazon etc., showed compliance with the orders of the Govt of India, but not Twitter Inc. Since these media platforms are based in the U.S; the Government of India asked for a Chief Compliance Officer, a nodal contact person for 24/7 coordination who would act as a resident Grievance Officer in India. As a matter of fact, the European Union and many nations have already regulated as per their country norms.
The Indian Government instructed these intermediaries to publish the guidelines on its website in effect that their content should not be: defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, invasive of another privacy, harmful to children and should not threaten the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India. The intermediary should provide information sought by the Government agency for the purpose of verification of identity for cyber security incidents.
Apart from the above, the Government of India is keen to check fake videos and audio messages. The recent attack on an elderly man in Ghaziabad; Uttar Pradesh, though reprehensible, was falsely given a communal angle. The man apparently being from a minority community and his complaint, communally surcharged, was lapped up by many- so-called celebrity-activists/journalists who claimed that India is intolerant of minorities. Later, the U.P. Police clarified that there is no communal angle as it resulted from a personal feud between some individuals, where he was thrashed. Now the matter is sub-judice. Some journalists jumped the gun because the incident was interpreted through their core psychological and political prejudices.
Twitter, by violating the deadline set by the Government, lost its legal indemnity/Safe-Harbour status. However, the microblogging app sought time to establish an appropriate local office for Twitter Inc with the advice of consultants in India. Twitter told the Union Government that it needed to establish its office prior to hiring the Complaint Compliance Officer and other officers on a permanent basis which would take time. In the recent meeting of the parliamentary standing committee on June 18, the ruling and the opposition parties were in unison. They asked Twitter to follow the rule of the land. While agreeing to work with the committee, Twitter officials adamantly told that they would follow their own policy. Finally, a few days ago, Twitter appointed an India-based grievance officer, Vinay Prakash as the resident grievance officer for India.
Like Nigeria, India being a democracy cannot ban Twitter. Big-Tech companies have a huge market in India. Their business here is imperative for them. So, the Government should not exempt them from following guidelines, assuming that all they do is with good intentions. It is pertinent to note that Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Jack Dorsey et.al. openly stand for what they define as socially liberal and progressive views. So, twitter’s battle with the GOI, is not likely to stop with Twitter Inc’s compliance with Indian regulation. There may be lawsuits (already some opposition leaders have filed cases to reverse the removal of their tweets by the company) and parliamentary debates over free-speech in the coming years. As Thomas Paine once observed, those who reap the benefits of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it.
At any cost, the Government should negotiate regulations with a degree of social consensus in today’s polarised social climate. To check the power of one platform like Twitter, a multiplicity of platforms is needed. Will the Government’s Atmanirbhar Koo, balance and outwit Twitter? The people of India need to decide.