The way things were panning out between Twitter and the Union government, it seemed we were going the Nigeria route. A couple of days ago, the Nigerian government took down the popular social media site because an ‘offensive’ tweet by President Muhammed Buhari had been deleted. Dictators are weird!
Something similar happened last month in India. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra’s tweet about a Congress ‘toolkit’ “defaming the government’s performance” (or lack of it) on the Covid havoc, was tagged by Twitter as ‘manipulated media’. The Ministry of Electronics & IT (Meity) jumped to Patra’s defense. A threatening posse of Delhi policemen also landed at the Gurugram office of the company.
Twitter was given a ‘final notice’ for not adhering to the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines And Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 by not appointing compliance officers. On May 27, Twitter had accused the Indian government of “dangerous overreach that is inconsistent with open, democratic principles.” The government in turn warned of “consequences”.
The situation was heading dangerously in the Nigerian direction, but Twitter pulled back just in time. The company has appointed a nodal compliance person and a resident grievance officer, and will be briefing the government on its ‘compliance’ in a week’s time.
Tables have turned on social media
The immediate crisis seems to have blown over, but the deeper issues remain. Internet and digital platforms have emerged over the last 2 decades as powerful tools of e-commerce and communication. Social media has opened up the floodgates of creativity and all the problems that come with it. The old, legacy media print and broadcasting is too structured, and like all brick-and-mortar entities open to interference from government and private owners.
In comparison, digital platforms are inexpensive and have become the ‘voice of the voiceless’. The government in India, and everywhere else, has not been too happy with media and communication shifting online. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) through its web of controls - the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867 and the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act, 1995 and such like - has kept a tight leash on print publishers and broadcast groups.
Digital publishing, on the other hand, has been more elusive as it does not respect borders; nor does it need clunky physical hubs to operate from. The Vajpayee government in 2000 promulgated the Indian Technology Act and the Intermediary Guidelines Rules in 2011. But these were more to set up some sort of electronic governance and to detect cyber crime. Digital ‘intermediaries’ remained largely untouched. One reason for social media having escaped the long arm of the censors for so long is because it had been weaponized by the right-wing to help the BJP juggernaut win elections and stay in power.
All this has been well documented by Swati Chaturvedi, in her famous book ‘I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army’. The author, who once worked for the BJP, exposed how the Sangh Parivar used volunteers and paid employees to “constantly peddle hate tweets and conspiracy theories and slander journalists”.
The tables have lately turned and the pro-establishment trolls are now on the run. Demonetization in 2017, the anti- CAA movement in 2019, and now, the mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic has created a backlash, changing the balance of forces on social media. The government has been taking heavy artillery from everyone, from Greta Thunberg and Rihanna, to armies of students.
The challenge to the new Code
Now that the shoe is on the other foot, there is a scramble to implement the Information Technology Intermediary Guidelines and to keep the likes of Twitter at bay. Isn’t it significant that the Indian version of Twitter, Koo, founded in March last year by a couple of Bengaluru techies, and promoted by government ministers, has now been welcomed with open arms by Nigerian President Muhammed Buhari? The Intermediary Guidelines are presented as a neutral self-regulating regime for OTT platforms and social and news media sites.
In fact, they are aimed at crippling free communication. The new Code prohibits these platforms from relaying any information ‘that is contrary to societal norms, immoral, or defamatory’ and requires them to block such information within 36 hours of being called out by a government or court order. ‘The intermediary shall not publish any information that is against the interests, unity, integrity, and sovereignty of the state.’ The powers to block content are draconian.
The Guidelines say in an emergency, authorized officers may investigate digital media material and the Secretary, Ministry of I&B, may issue an interim order blocking the use of such content. The new rules require the ‘intermediary’ to reveal, if demanded by the government, ‘the first originator of information’. There goes WhatsApp’s ‘end-to-end encryption’! Which is why WhatsApp has moved the Delhi High Court against the new Code as it tramples on the fundamental right of privacy.
Carnatic singer T.M. Krishna too has challenged the constitutional validity of the new IT rules in the Madras high court, arguing that they are ‘illegal’ and travel beyond the Information Technology Act, 2000. Cyberspace is a difficult terrain to control, and the government may soon discover that the genie, once out in the open, cannot be forced back in the bottle.
GOVERNMENT’s NEW RULES AND THE CONTROVERSY AROUND IT
The government’s new rules for social media mandates instant messaging apps to trace the origin of a message, if required by the authorities by law.
However, Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which had consistently opposed diluting encryption of its platform, has taken the government to court, saying that the new rules violate the right to privacy of Indian users.