The issue of data privacy has been ratcheted up to a fever pitch in the face-off between the social media giants, Twitter and WhatsApp, and the government. Twitter, in a hard-hitting statement on Thursday, criticised the government’s attempt to bring in new guidelines “that inhibit free, open conversation”. Referring to the Delhi Police’s visit to its offices, the company expressed concern at the “use of intimidation tactics”. WhatsApp has meanwhile moved the Delhi High Court seeking a declaration that the government’s new IT rules are a violation of privacy rights in the Constitution. The new rules force the social media companies to identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it.
The Centre, in a strong rebuttal, said the right to free speech “cannot be unfettered”. In a reply to Twitter, it has accused the company of trying to undermine our legal system by claiming indemnity from criminal liability in India. The latest spat is taking place after the three-month deadline to implement the Information Technology Guidelines expired on May 25. Social media platforms will now have to give details about the origin of a tweet or a message. The regulation also requires the companies to set up a complex, three-tier grievance redressal framework.
The new set of IT rules that aim to regulate social media could muzzle free speech. Justice B N Srikrishna, a retired Supreme Court judge who headed the Expert Committee on data protection constituted in 2017 by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, has pointed out that demanding traceability of messages to the originator amounts to making “inroads into the fundamental right of privacy”. The demand is not legal unless it is backed by legislation passed by Parliament, he has said. Such onerous restrictions cannot be sneaked in via ministry ‘guidelines’. Secondly, these rules seem to be an attempt by the government to stem criticism of its policies. As long as social media was a tool that supported the government and used to troll those who spoke against it, there was no issue. Now, with the pendulum swinging the other way, restraining rules seem to have cropped up overnight. One-sided rule-making to protect the government cannot be supported