Twitter′s India troubles present robust path forward for digital platforms | Asia| An in-depth have a look at information from throughout the continent | DW

Twitter has a relatively small share of the Indian social media market. But since 2017, the vast nation has become Twitter’s fastest growing market and is becoming critical to its global expansion plans.

In February, the Indian government introduced new guidelines to regulate digital content on rapidly growing social media platforms.

The so-called intermediary guidelines aim to regulate content on Internet platforms such as Twitter and Facebook in order to make them more responsible for legal requests to remove posts and to pass on information about the senders of messages.

The rules that social media platforms recognize as intermediaries stipulate that companies take action against content that the government has classified as illegal.

Employees at these companies can be held criminally responsible for failing to comply with government requests.

Large social media companies must also put in place mechanisms to address grievances and appoint executives to liaise with law enforcement agencies under the new rules, as well as appoint an India-based compliance officer to hold the content on their platforms criminally responsible becomes.

The Indian government says the rules empower “users who are victims of defamation, altered images, sexual abuse, among other things.” It also said that the rules should address the issue of disinformation.

However, critics fear the rules could be used to target government opponents and ensure dissidents do not use the platforms.

Social media companies were expected to adopt the new rules by April 25.

In some Indian media reports recently it was said that Twitter had lost its status as an “intermediary” and the associated legal protection because it did not comply with the new rules.

Failure to comply and serious consequences

Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a New Delhi-based digital rights advocacy group, says failure to follow the rules could threaten Twitter’s activities in India.

“Failure to comply with the rules would be a real risk to the operating environment of Twitter,” he told DW.

“It has to go to court to defend itself every time a prosecution is brought against it,” he added.

The first case against Twitter was filed last week where he was charged with failing to stop the distribution of a video on his platform allegedly inciting “hatred and enmity” between two religious groups.

“Heavy Censorship”

Gupta says complying with all government demands would fundamentally transform Twitter.

“Absolute compliance would mean heavy censorship of individual tweets, the removal of the manipulated media tags and the blocking / suspension of accounts at the behest of the government,” he said.

Torsha Sarkar, policy officer at the Bengaluru-based Center for Internet and Society, fears Twitter could sometimes be forced to exceed government demands, jeopardizing user rights.

“This can be done either by over-adhering to incorrect requests for information, which sells out users, or by removing content that violates majority sentiments,” she told DW.

Last week, three special rapporteurs, appointed by a leading UN human rights body, expressed “serious concerns” that certain parts of the guidelines “could lead to the restriction or violation of a wide variety of human rights”.

They urged New Delhi to review the rules, adding that they are inconsistent with India’s international human rights obligations and could threaten the digital rights of Indians.

Twitter’s balancing act Twitter

It’s not the first time Twitter has been accused of giving in to government pressure to censor content on its platform.

At the height of the long-running peasant protests, Twitter blocked hundreds of tweets and accounts, including the handle of a well-known news magazine. It subsequently unlocked them after the public outrage.

The US company failed to comply with demands to block activists, politicians and journalists’ accounts. Such a move would “violate their fundamental right to freedom of expression under Indian law”.

According to local media reports, Twitter’s Indian executives have reportedly been threatened with fines and imprisonment if the accounts are not deleted.

Special police notify Twitter offices

Last month, the marking of a tweet by a politician from the ruling BJP as “rigged media” prompted a special unit of the Delhi police to visit the Twitter offices in the capital and neighboring Gurgaon. The police informed the authorities about an investigation into the marking of the post.

According to media reports, the managing director of Twitter India, Manish Maheswari, has been asked to appear before the police for questioning.

Fear of government reprisals, some Twitter workers have refused to speak about the ongoing tension.

“Such intimidation does not happen every day. (But) Everyone at Twitter India is afraid,” a person familiar with the matter told DW on condition of anonymity.

Big Tech VS Sovereignty?

Those calling for better regulation of tech giants say transnational social media companies like Twitter are not accountable, blaming them for alleged inaction against online abuse and disinformation campaigns.

“The problem with these rules is that they give government more power without giving users the objective advantage of rights,” said Gupta.

“If Twitter followed these rules, it would make a dire situation worse,” he said.

Sarkar of the Center for Internet and Society said that while Twitter won’t leave a large market like India, the power struggle between internet companies and governments is just beginning.

“It might be hard to say how the power of big tech will clash with sovereign nations, especially in the face of flawed legal encroachment around the world,” said Sarkar.

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