Govt Vs Twitter: Need to Control Social Media?

Published : Feb 17, 2021 12:02 pm | By: M D Sridharan

Govt Vs Twitter: Need to Control Social Media?


All over the world it is not uncommon for nations to frame their laws to protect their sovereignty and it has been universally accepted as a democratic process.

On the 71st Republic Day, the country witnessed unpleasant scenes from the historic Ramparts of the Red Fort. Contrary to the upbeat celebrations that the country has been witnessing for the past seven decades, on 26th January, 2021, the Republic Day was marked by the violent protests and desecration of the national flag.

What was started as a peaceful protest slowly turned in to a rebellion movement and finally did the unthinkable. Thousands of farmers bearing flags of several farm unions, who have been protesting, against new the Farm Laws tabled by the Modi government as a part of reforms, for well over two months, drove in tractors to the national capital. The farmers left behind a trail of vandalism, violence, hooliganism and unleashed mayhem on the Delhi roads. They breached the originally assigned routes and travelled in hundreds of tractors violently waving swords and flags shouting slogans against the Modi government The farmers marched towards Red Fort and hoisted their Kisan flag at the Ramparts of the Red Fort, exactly at the same venue where Indian Tri-Colour is being hoisted by the Prime Minister every independence day, much to the shock of millions of Indians.

Despite the government’s offer to amend the laws and suspend their implementation for 18 months, the agitating farmers are unwilling to call off their protests. A detailed investigation by the Delhi Police post the violence, revealed the involvement of foreign hands, especially ISI’s game plan, to bring disrepute to India on the republic day.  

Delhi Police claimed that over 300 Twitter handles have been generated from Pakistan during January 13 to 18 to disrupt the tractor rally by farmers and create havoc by misleading people.

The government had asked Twitter to remove tweets that had used an incendiary hashtag, and accounts allegedly used by Khalistan separatist groups and "backed by Pakistan". Overall  the government asked Twitter to take down 1,178 accounts with links to Pakistan and Khalistan supporters who were spreading misinformation and provoking the farmers with  blatantly” and dishonest hashtag. “farmergenocide”.

 In response to the government’s call, Twitter had first blocked some 250 accounts that included accounts of some journalists, activists and outfits associated with supporting the months-long protests on the outskirts of Delhi. But, within six hours later, Twitter restored the accounts, citing "insufficient justification" for continuing the suspension.

Soon, Twitter executives met the IT ministry and conveyed their views on what the platform felt about suspending the accounts permanently as they consider it as a disproportionate measure and moreover the tweets were newsworthy and constituted free speech. But the government ordered Twitter to block the accounts again, and threatened people working for the company in India with legal action - up to seven years in prison - if they refused to do so. Twitter responded and said that it would not block accounts belonging to media companies, journalists, activists and politicians because that would "violate their fundamental right to free expression under the Indian law".

Social media platform should follow Indian Laws

Indian IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad warned social media platforms to follow Indian laws. He said, "Be it Twitter, Face book, LinkedIn or WhatsApp, action will be taken if these platforms are misused. Work in India. You have crores of followers here. We respect that. Make money but you will have to abide by Indian laws and the Constitution”.

He also questioned the double standards of social media platforms. “What is the matter that when there is violence in US Capitol Hill, social media platforms stand by police investigation but when Red Fort is breached, the same platforms go against the Indian government? Red Fort is the symbol of our pride. We won't allow these double standards" said Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

"What is this? You are trending hashtags supporting massacre, genocide?" the minister said. We respect social media a lot. It has empowered common people. Social media has a big role in the Digital India programme. However, if social media is misused to spread fake news, violence then action will be taken," the minister said. Commenting on the government's commitment to free speech and individual freedom, the minister said, “Our commitment to freedom of media is complete and total. But we are equally concerned about the security and sovereignty of India,"

Section 69A of the IT Law

Section 69A of the IT Law allows the government to block online content that threatens the security of the state.  But the rule also indicates that the originator of the content should be given a hearing. The problem with Section 69A is that secrecy is built into it through its rules and law is opaque. Accordingly, the government need not have to disclose orders issued under the law and also do not allow the platform to disclose. 

In last June when India banned TikTok and dozens of Chinese apps, the government issued detailed statements, explaining the reasons. The government pointed out that d the apps were "prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order".

But in this case the government simply ordered and did not explain in detail. Opposition parties point out the discrepancy and demand that the government come clean with the details in banning Twitter handles. They also question the government in trying to block entire handles of specific accounts instead of specific tweets?

Besides, the government has also taken to an India microblogging app called Koo to respond to Twitter. A number of BJP supporters, ministers and officials have opened accounts on Koo, which offers messaging in eight Indian languages.

Twitter is not above the country’s law  

Amidst the face-off between the government and Twitter, the fact remains that Twitter has agreed to address the government’s concerns only partially and expressed its unwillingness to comply with the government’s orders.

The fact also remains that all companies that wish to do business in India have to do so within the parameters of the country’s Constitution and the laws made by our Parliament. Whatever be the company’s rules and guidelines, they will, for ever, have to be subordinate to the laws of the land. This is applicable for Twitter also, though the Microblogging site has an estimated 15 million users in India.

But Twitter is not willing to bow down to the rules of the land. Twitter. "We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve. We are exploring options under Indian law - both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted," it says.

In the current face-off with the Indian government, Twitter has adopted a strange policy in unblocking the accounts despite orders from the government of India and continues to support the activists under cover of the right to free expression. While the Indian constitution gives all citizens the power of “freedom of speech and expression”, the constitution also allows the state to make laws that impose “reasonable restrictions” in the interests of “sovereignty and integrity of India, All over the world it is not uncommon for nations to frame their laws to protect their sovereignty and it has been universally accepted as a democratic process.  Twitter is just a service provide and cannot interpret “freedom of speech and expression” as per its whims and fancies and act against the interest of India.