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To block or not to block: The to and fro meetings between IT Minister, Twitter

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The first guidelines for internet intermediaries were released in 2011. And then in 2018, on account of the massive changes in the way social media companies and their users were shaping public discourse, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology planned a new set of guidelines for these intermediaries. But then, for over two years, all was dormant. Until a public confrontation between Twitter and the IT Ministry forced the latter’s hand to revive the 2018 draft, add more rules and release them. All in less than a month’s time.

On January 26, as Delhi Police personnel and other paramilitary forces tried to contain the violence after a splinter group, allegedly from the farmers’ rally, had marched into Delhi, another group of officials at the Ministry of Electronics was keeping an eye out for content being shared on social media platforms. By noon that day, internet services had been suspended in parts of Delhi and adjoining areas. Social media posts in support of as well against the group of protesters that reached Red Fort and hoisted a religious flag, however, continued unabated. And more was yet to come.

Around 3 pm that day, a tractor driven by one of the protesters turned turtle after hitting a barricade placed by Delhi Police on a road near the Income Tax Office in central Delhi. The driver, a 24-year-old Navreet Singh, police later claimed was crushed under the tractor he was driving. On the other hand, his family members and other protesters later claimed that he was shot and died due to police firing.

Social media had, meanwhile, arrived at its conclusions, with many on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube claiming that Delhi Police had indeed resorted to firing on protesters. Supporting this claim were activists, political party members and even senior journalists from media houses.

Though some of these posts were later deleted, the IT Ministry had taken note and was preparing to send Twitter a temporary take-down notice of these tweets as “they had spread misinformation which could lead to further violence”. “It is unbecoming of such senior journalists and politicians to send out information to their followers without any verification whatsoever. 300 Delhi Police personnel were injured that day…they were attacked by swords. Flip the coin and imagine if these many protesters had been injured due to any reason whatsoever, what would have been the situation?” a senior IT Ministry official told The Sunday Express later.

On January 30, multiple tweets, with the hashtag “ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide”, were posted by accounts supporting the farmers’ agitation, activists, and some politicians. The Ministry, officials said, almost immediately issued an emergency blocking order asking Twitter to immediately take down the hashtag and block access to such accounts.

The IT Ministry had asked Twitter to block access to, or take down 250 such tweets and accounts, which were either using the hashtag or content similar to it. Twitter complied, for the time being, taking down the accounts, including those of news portal Caravan India and Aam Aadmi Party MLA Jarnail Singh. A Twitter account by the name of Kisan Ekta Morcha was also taken down.

But then less than 24 hours later, some of these accounts were restored, so was some content. The platform, by its admission, restored some of these accounts, as it believed that the emergency orders passed by the IT Ministry were not as per the free speech laws of the country.

This flexing did not sit well with senior officials at IT Ministry as well as other government agencies. Twenty four hours later, Twitter was served with another notice, this time for non-compliance of the IT Ministry’s orders under its emergency blocking powers. Three days later, on February 4, the IT Ministry sent Twitter another list of 1,178 accounts, asking the platform to either suspend their access in India or block them as these had been “flagged by security agencies as accounts of Khalistan sympathisers or backed by Pakistan”. Twitter dithered. And that was more than enough to test the patience of the IT Ministry. Talks of strict legal and penal action against top Twitter officials in India started doing the rounds, which was enough to make the platform blink.

In a letter to IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on February 8, Twitter said that the “safety” of its employees in India was “top priority” and therefore it had “from a position of respect” reached out to the Minister for dialogue.

Prasad, however, had had enough, and almost immediately refused to meet “anyone from Twitter”, officials had then said. He had instead asked IT Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney to preside over the meeting, which was set for February 10.

The situation had nearly diffused when in a curious turn of events, Twitter published a blog post on the morning of the meeting. In a 650-odd word post, Twitter started by saying that it believed “transparency” was the foundation to “promoting healthy public conversation”.

“It is critical that people understand our approach to content moderation and how we engage with governments around the world,” Twitter had said in its blog, detailing later what action it had taken or not taken on the notices sent by the IT Ministry.

In gaming parlance, the blog was the third strike for Twitter. IT Ministry officials responded, first on Koo, a homegrown micro-blogging website that the publishing of the blog before a scheduled meeting — or which Twitter had reached out to them—was “unusual”. For close to 12 hours that day, it was unclear if the meeting would go on as planned, with several officials saying it will be deferred to a later date. By 7:30 pm, however, the meeting was back on track and Twitter was in for “an earful”. Of all the things that Ministry officials found objectionable in Twitter’s response during the entire episode, the company’s lack of willingness to act on multiple posts that used the word “genocide” regarding the handling of the farm protest was the most unacceptable.

“The Secretary told Twitter officials in very clear terms that they should not teach India how to interpret its laws on free speech. We have handled protests much better than them and they should certainly not tell us how to do that after the Capitol Hill violence and their handling of black lives matter protests,” another senior official said. The meeting had the desired effect for the government as Twitter said it had removed 95 per cent of the content and blocked all the handles, apart from also agreeing to “restructuring” of India leadership for better communication with the government.

A day later, to reinforce the stand that his Ministry had taken, Prasad told the Rajya Sabha that while all social media companies were free to do business in India, they must respect the laws of the land. Twitter India has been on a stoic silence mode since then and did not even react to the new rules for social media intermediaries. Whether it was if they indeed had no comments to share, or because they wanted to maintain a low profile after the standoff, is only for the time and Twitter to answer.

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