Social media platforms are free to do business in India, but must respect the law of the land, Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) Ravi Shankar Prasad said in Rajya Sabha on Thursday.
His comments come a day after two of Twitter’s global executives held a virtual meeting with the MeitY secretary and other officials regarding the standoff between the two sides on content takedown requests.
“We flagged Twitter...why is it that (on) Washington Capitol Hill when ransacking occurs and the police has to take action, these microblogging companies stand with them, but when an attack happens on the Red Fort here, which is a symbol of India’s pride, they stand against it. This double standard will not work...Freedom of expression exists in the Indian Constitution, but Article 19(2) also says it is subject to reasonable restrictions...what is the meaning of trending hashtags like Narendra Modi is massacring farmers? We will be very strict,” Prasad said.
He was referring to the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide that was trending on Twitter around January 30. MeitY asked the firm to take down and block certain accounts tweeting that hashtag.
Twitter took action on hundreds of accounts that violated Twitter Rules and had the potential to incite offline harm, prevented some terms from trending and suspended over 500 accounts. However, it did not fully comply with MeitY’s orders.
In the Capitol Hill riots that broke out in the US on January 6, Twitter stopped the phrase “Hang Mike Pence” after it trended on the social media platform. The phrase was heard at the US Capitol and trended after Twitter permanently banned former US president Donald Trump’s account for inciting the riot.
MeitY also subsequently asked Twitter to block 1,200 more accounts flagged by security agencies as belonging to Khalistan sympathisers or backed by Pakistan.
In a blog post on Wednesday, Twitter said two of these were emergency blocking orders that the firm temporarily complied with, but subsequently restored access to the content in a manner that it believed was consistent with Indian law. “After we communicated this to MeitY, we were served with a non-compliance notice,” the blog post by Twitter Safety said.
The blog added that in keeping with its principles of defending freedom of expression, it had 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. We informed MeitY of our enforcement actions today, February 10, 2021. We will continue to maintain dialogue with the Indian government and respectfully engage with them,” Twitter said.
The government said Wednesday in a strongly worded statement that ‘’lawfully passed orders are binding on any business entity’’. The minister also said on Thursday that any social media company's own rules were not above Indian law.
“We respect social media a lot,” said Prasad in Parliament on Thursday. “Social media has empowered people, had a big role in Digital India programme. We also support the right to criticism, you can criticise anyone from the Prime Minister to the Constitution, because it’s a part of our Constitution. But misuse of social media for violence, fake news...will invite action, I want to say with a lot of modesty,” he added.