From posts over alleged communal tensions in Ghaziabad to pictures purportedly spreading hatred and ill-will in society, Twitter seems to be regularly in the news for runs-in with the law. But till even a few months back, the platform wasn’t being hauled up for posts by users. So, what has changed now?
What Is Meant By Loss Of ‘Safe Harbour’?
In an affidavit in Delhi High Court on July 5, the Centre said that Twitter has failed to comply with India’s Information Technology (IT) rules, and hence did not qualify for protections that the laws offer to platforms like itself in India.
In February this year, the Centre had introduced the ‘Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021’ that sought to regulate the functioning of social media platforms operating in the country. Platforms that had more than 50 lakh users in India — mainly Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter — were designated as significant social media intermediaries and were mandated to fulfil specific conditions to operate in India.
The penalty for failure to comply with the rules included the loss of intermediary status for such companies, which means they would be liable to face action for any content published on their platforms no matter who published it. Article 79 of the new IT rules, which provide “exemption from liability of intermediary in certain cases" says that “an intermediary shall not be liable for any third party information, data, or communication" posted on its platform. That is, it will be safe from any action for pposts by a third party.
Among the key compliances sought within 90 days of the notification of the IT rules on February 25 was for the eligible social media platforms to appoint compliance and nodal officers who would be responsible for monitoring and removal of objectionable content. When the deadline arrived on May 26, most of the major platforms had yet to appoint the said officers. But while the likes of Google, Facebook, etc. have now filled such posts, Twitter is yet to make its appointments.
What Are The Three Posts Twitter Is Yet To Fill?
The Centre told Delhi HC that till July 1, Twitter had failed to name a chief compliance officer with the posts of resident grievance officer and nodal contact person, too, lying vacant. Further, it mentioned that a physical contact address, which such platforms had to display prominently on their portals, had gone missing from Twitter.
According to the new IT rules, the chief compliance officer for a social media major will ensure compliance with the Act and rules while the nodal contact person will be responsible for 24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies and officers. The resident grievance officer is to be charged with the task of running the platform’s grievance redressal mechanism. Importantly, all three officers are required to be based in India.
Twitter told Delhi HC last week that its candidate for the post of interim resident grievance officer per the new IT rules had withdrawn even before the appointment could be finalised and that “the grievances of Indian users are being addressed by a Grievance Officer". Twitter’s Global Legal Policy director Jeremy Kessel is handling the duty in the interim, but the arrangement does not meet the requirement for the grievance redressal officer to be based in India.
Twitter had further told Delhi HC that the three-month deadline for compliance with the new IT rules was “directory and not mandatory and is further subject to just exceptions, including Covid-19".
What Have Other Big Social Media Players Done?
The likes of Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Koo, Sharechat, Telegram and LinkedIn — all of which qualify as significant social media intermediaries — have shared details with the relevant authorities of steps taken to comply with the new IT rules.
Reports in May this year said that Twitter had at the time only provided the details of a lawyer as their nodal contact person and grievance officer to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).
On July 3, Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that Google, Facebook and Instagram had also published their first compliance reports under the new rules regarding the voluntary removal of offensive posts. The significant social media intermediaries are mandated to come out with monthly compliance reports stating the details of complaints made to them and the action taken by them.
“Nice to see significant social media platforms like Google, Facebook and Instagram following the new IT Rules. First compliance report on voluntary removal of offensive posts published by them as per IT Rules is a big step towards transparency," Prasad had said in a tweet, although he didn’t mention Twitter.
From its refusal to block certain handles as directed by authorities following violence in Delhi linked to the farmers’ protest on January 26 this year to raids on its offices in May in connection with the Congress ‘toolkit’ case, Twitter has found itself at loggerheads with the government. The episodes involving the temporary blocking of the IT Minister’s handle as well as that of Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and its tagging of posts by some BJP leaders as ‘manipulated media’ have all kept Twitter in the news as the government accuses it of undermining laws in India even as the social media platform cites its defence of free speech in justification of its actions.