Caging the blue bird: FIR against Twitter raises questions

With Twitter losing its intermediary status and being named in an FIR,  tech behemoths have a view of what is in store for them if they do not follow the government’s new guidelines 

In a world where narratives are built and debates conducted on the premise of facts, be it ‘alternative facts’ or ‘twisted facts’, the very idea that social media platforms should and can be held responsible for content uploaded, tweeted, or posted by users — not all of whose identity can be verified — may seem like an absurd idea. 

This absurd idea, however, is now coming to life. On June 15, at 11:45 pm, UP police named Twitter in an FIR as several journalists were allowed to share a video on the platform, which shows an elderly man being assaulted by a group of young individuals. The initial posts that went viral on the microblogging site claimed that the man was beaten up for being a Muslim and was forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram’

According to the police complaint lodged by the elderly man, these charges were not brought up and Muslims were also arrested as accused in the incident. Hence the UP government deemed it fit to lodge an FIR against Twitter in the incident. 

The FIR was filed based on the new Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules 2021) which have not yet been implemented by the microblogging site. According to these new guidelines, all social media platforms have to appoint a chief compliance officer, nodal officer and grievance officer — failure to do which will result in platforms losing their intermediary status in the country. 

Losing the intermediary status that had so far ensured immunity for social media platforms from charges being brought against them for publishing content deemed offensive, inappropriate or unlawful, exposes Twitter to more such FIRs and complaints. 


So why did Twitter put itself in such a position?


The new intermediary guidelines were announced in February this year and social media platforms had a deadline till May 26 to comply. Failure to do so was expected to result in their services being disrupted in the country, something that led to a lot of debate on social media. However, no such disruptions were seen and Twitter being the only social media giant which did not comply with the new norms, lost its intermediary status. 

Union IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in a series on Twitter explained that the platform was given multiple opportunities to comply with the new IT rules but it “deliberately chose the path of non-compliance’. 

On Twitter’s part it needs to be understood that appointing a chief compliance officer, nodal officer and grievance officer who can either remove or reply to a complaint from the government within 36 hours would be a prospect that only creates a big burden on the platform but also limits its ability to decide for itself what content that will be allowed on it based on its community guidelines. 

Journalists Rana Ayyub has been named in an FIR along with The Wire, Mohammad Zuabir, Dr Shama Mohammed, Saba Naqvi, Maksoor Usamni and Salman Nizami Twitter for allegedly sharing fake news on the platform PHOTO:Getty

The thing of note here is that tussle over content between the Indian Government and Twitter is not new, and it does seem that there will be a quick end to it. In February, the Centre has asked Twitter to remove 1,200 accounts that had posted content related to ‘farmer genocide’ amid the farmers protest against the new farm laws. Similarly, Twitter had to remove 50 posts on the platform following an order from the government, these posts included tweets that were critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic. 


What does it mean for users? 

For starters, the main idea behind losing the intermediary status means that Twitter can be held responsible for any and every post that the government deems offensive, inappropriate or unlawful. To retain its intermediary status, Twitter will have to ensure that any tweet flagged by the government is taken down within 36 hours and that it appoints a grievance officer. Failure to do so, as was seen, will result in Twitter being named in even more FIRs. Moreover, this also creates the problem of freedom of expression on social media platforms. 

If posts critical of the government are deemed inappropriate and a complaint is filed by the government, there is little social media sites can do to ensure freedom of speech and though these platforms are not really flag bearers of freedom of speech and expression, they do play an important role in it . 

For users on social media platforms that have already complied with the new guidelines, the effects will be far reaching. WhatsApp on its part has already sued the Indian government over implementation of the new guidelines saying it would jeopardise the privacy of users. 

The bone of contention here is that social media platforms have to ensure that the first originator of fake news can be traced, which means that WhatsApp will have to let go of its end to end message encryption to trace the originator of a message, a key selling point for the platform. 

Though the government has said that the rule of originator will be required only in “prevention, investigation or punishment of very serious offences related to sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or of incitement to an offence relating to the above or in relation with rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material”, but the problem remains that tracing the first originator compromises the very premise on which the messaging platform works. 

Subsequently, this would unlatch Pandora’s box for the platform and it would open it up to further similar requests across the globe. 

Another concern is who all can be held accountable for sharing or retweeting posts or tweets flagged by the government? In the Loni incident, where Twitter was named in the FIR, online news portal The Wire, along with journalists Rana Ayyub, Mohammad Zuabir, Dr Shama Mohammed, Saba Naqvi, Maksoor Usamni and Salman Nizami have also been named. In such a scenario, should every user who retweeted the content be held accountable? And if so, where does it stop? 

Also it brings up the question, will social media sites be able to function the way they do right  now with the  burden of acting within 36 hours of a complaint being filed by the government, and if they do, is the data of users and their voices going to be safe? Whatever the solution may be, one thing is for sure: either Larry can choose to fly away from India or he can live within the cage of the IT guidelines. 


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