Twitter Vs Indian Government: The Fight For Digital Sovereignty

With Twitter seeking more time for compliance, it remains to be seen whether it is the government or the company, who has the last say on the platform's digital sovereignty.

In early February, when Rihanna called out the excesses by the Indian authorities on protesting farmers through a tweet, it started an online battle, with the Indian government rallying some of the country's biggest celebrities in its defence. Rihanna, too, got her own backing from India and abroad, and none other than Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was found liking the tweets that came in support of the Barbadian popstar.

This act by Dorsey might have been a foreshadowing of an ever growing struggle between the microblogging giant and the Indian government over what sort of content can feature on the platform - while the latter has repeatedly tried to take down tweets that are critical of its governance, the former has time and again defended the use of its platform to voice dissent.

On the other hand, Twitter has, in the past, pulled up members of the ruling party by tagging their tweets as manipulated content and limiting their reach. It has also permanently suspended the account of actor Kangana Ranaut - a staunch supporter of the Narendra Modi-led administration and its right-wing agenda.

The bitter feud culminated in the Indian government giving Twitter 'one last warning' on Saturday to comply with the stringent and controversial IT rules that were announced in February, or face 'unintended consequences'.

Following this, Twitter has approached the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, seeking more time to comply with the new IT rules, official sources told PTI.

Ban On Social Media Unlikely

Towards the end of May, rumours were doing rounds on the internet stating that Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter may be banned in India, if they do not comply with the new IT rules.

The idea of a total ban may not be that far-fetched - after all, Nigeria recently took that step and banned Twitter for deleting a tweet by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. In Nigeria, the Twitter ban was changed from indefinite to temporary, after losses of over $ 1 billion was reported in the country's e-commerce sector.

However, such a ban is unlikely to happen in India; rather, officials representing these tech companies - whose platforms have become ingrained into the Indian society and polity - could face legal actions for non-compliance, as warned by the centre time and again.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp went as far as to sue to the Indian government at Delhi High Court to block the new IT rules. "In doing so, a government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance," the company wrote in a blogpost.

Twitter, whose feud with the Indian government keeps growing, is yet to respond on this matter. BOOM reached out to a company spokesperson with queries on this topic, and the article will be updated if and when we get a response.

The Fight For Digital Sovereignty

Long before Dorsey went on a liking spree on tweets that were supportive of Rihanna's post on the farmers protest in India (and therefore clearly marking his stance against the Indian government's actions on protesting farmers), his company tagged a post made by BJP IT Cell Chief Amit Malviya with the 'manipulated media' label, and restricted it from being shared further on the platform.

Twitter's actions were justified; Malviya had posted a cropped video of a Delhi Police officer taking a swing at a protesting farmer with his baton, missing in the process, to claim that the farmer was not really beaten.

BOOM found that claim to be false; a longer version of the video clearly saw the farmer being thrashed by the police officer. We also got in touch with the farmer, who sent a video to us showing the injuries sustained from the thrashing.

Also Read: I Am Right Here If They Want To See My Injuries: Lathi-Charged Farmer

A week after the 'Rihanna vs Indian government' row, several prominent Indian handles who were reporting extensively on the farmers protest were withheld by the microblogging platform.

This included accounts of news magazine The Caravan, farmers' acitivist group Kisan Ekta Morcha, and other notable personalities like Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLA Jarnail Singh, actor Sushant Singh, activist Sanjukta Basu, activist Hansraj Meena and Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati.

Following major outrage over the blocking of these accounts, Twitter restored some of these withheld accounts, and stated that the actions were taken in response to a legal request by the government. The website told government officials that the ban on these accounts were reversed to preserve free speech on the platform. The company said in a statement, "We have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law."

Few days later, the Centre issued a notice to Twitter India, warning it with penal action for its failure to comply with its January 31 order to block accounts that used the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmersGenocide. The blocking order had also mentioned some accounts that did not use the hashtag, such as The Caravan.

Also Read: No Actions Against News Media, Journalists: Twitter To Indian Govt

Last month, BJP Chief Spokesperson Sambit Patra had one of his tweets tagged with the 'manipulated media' label. A miffed Union government strongly objected to this action, and told Twitter to take down the tag.

"The Ministry of Electronics and IT has written a strong communication to the global team of Twitter, registering its objection to the use of 'manipulated media' tag on certain tweets made by Indian political leaders with reference to a toolkit created to undermine, derail and demean the efforts of the government against the COVID-19 pandemic," a ministry official source told PTI.

Few days later, Twitter's office was raided by Delhi Police Special Cell, but they found it to be locked. The hashtag #BanTwitterInIndia started trending on that platform itself.

The Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad stood firmly with the government's actions and told the Hindu Business Line that these IT Rules did not appear suddenly, but were work-in-progress for several years.

The Modi government has given the monumental task of working out how to operate with the new IT rules in the giant Indian market to the social media companies in a matter of three months. In comparison, the European Union had provided two years to tech companies to comply with the data privacy rules it had announced in 2018.

With Twitter seeking more time for compliance, it remains to be seen whether its the government or the company who has the last say on the platform's digital sovereignty.

Meanwhile, top members of the government have openly showed support to Indian made alternatives like Koo which has already garnered a loyal user base of over 60 lakh users.

Also Read: Koo App - The Desi Twitter Supported By The Govt

The recent ban on Twitter in Nigeria has opened up an opportunity for Koo to attempt at filling the void left by its giant rival.

However, its future in the Nigerian and Indian market still remains largely dependant on the final outcome of the battles between Twitter and the respective governments.

Updated On: 2021-06-08T18:13:29+05:30
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