The government does not have the power under the Information Technology Act to direct Twitter to remove the ‘manipulated media’ tag from certain tweets , experts said.
They say the Centre’s move raises concerns of censorship and view the action as “needless interference” in implementation of the terms of service of a private company conducting business in India.
The government on Friday had asked Twitter to remove the ‘manipulated media’ tag from certain tweets by Indian political leaders, including the BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra, “with reference to a toolkit created to undermine, derail and demean the efforts of the Government against the COVID-19 pandemic”. However, the microblogging platform has not removed the label.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology did not comment on whether it would take further steps, while Twitter refused to comment on the issue.
As per Twitter’s ‘synthetic and manipulated media policy’, it may label tweets that include media that have been deceptively altered or fabricated. “In order to determine if media have been significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated, we may use our own technology or receive reports through partnerships with third parties. In situations where we are unable to reliably determine if media have been altered or fabricated, we may not take action to label or remove them,” the company policy states.
Kazim Rizvi, founder of policy think-tank The Dialogue said, “All social media platforms have their terms of service which users sign up for at the time of joining a platform and agree to abide by these terms. If anyone violates these terms of service, they are subject to a range of enforcements as outlined by the respective platforms.”
Mr. Rizvi said this is a standard global practice for platforms across the world and not just for Twitter in India.
He also pointed out that the IT Act does not empower the Ministry of Electronics and IT to order a platform to undo its enforcement decision (labelling a post) and any attempt to interfere raises concerns of censorship and lack of transparency. “It is important to note that the IT Act empowers the government to order blocking and removal of content. It however does not allow the government with any power to interfere with enforcement decisions (labelling a post) of a platform in application of their own terms of service.”
According to Alt News , a fact checking website, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) research department letterhead has been tampered with in the toolkit document, raising questions about its authenticity. “An examination of the content of the document, meant to strategise a future course of action, reveals that it refers to events that have already taken place in the past. The BJP till now has only shared screenshots of the alleged toolkit and has failed to produce the original — either the PDF version or the Microsoft Word version,” it said, adding that without the original document, the BJP’s claims come across as inauthentic, especially because the ‘toolkit’ is made on a poor copy of the original letterhead used by the AICC’s research wing.
Prasanth Sugathan, legal director of Software Freedom Law Centre, India, said Twitter is a private entity which, in line with the laws and regulations in India, is entitled to moderate content which is being exchanged upon its platform. There is no law or regulation in India that explicitly prohibits or mandates the marking, flagging or labeling of content by intermediaries, he noted.
“The Central government under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 has the authority to issue directions for blocking access to information but that authority cannot be used in respect of ordering an intermediary to remove the label on content... If a user is not abiding by the terms of service, the intermediary even has the right to terminate the user account,” Mr. Sugathan said.
On the government’s reasoning that such tagging by Twitter “appears prejudged, prejudiced and a deliberate attempt to colour the investigation by local law enforcement agency”, he added that what Twitter does on its platform will have no bearing on an investigation by a law enforcement agency on the issue of whether the document is forged. “Thus, the direction, if any, given by the government to remove the labelling is a needless interference in the way Twitter conducts its business in India,” he said.
Mr. Rizvi added that attempts from the government to interfere in enforcement of terms of service by private companies raises the spectre of censorship.