The Supreme Court on Friday issued notice to the Centre and social media companies including Twitter, based on a petition filed by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader that urged the government to create a mechanism to rein in fake news and provocative ads and messages on social media.
The court has sought responses from the government and companies to a public interest litigation (PIL), filed by Vinit Goenka in May 2020. Advocate Ashwini Kumar Dubey appeared for the petitioner on Friday.
The petition said that in the absence of any mechanism or law prohibiting Twitter or other similar social media platforms from “spreading, circulating, amplifying material” that promotes separatist agenda, hatred among communities, seditious material, and threat to national security through advertisement or posts, the companies have to explain why they are allowing such content.
There are about 35 million Twitter handles and ten times as many Facebook accounts in India, and according to experts 10 per cent users on both platforms are duplicate, bogus or fake, it added.
The PIL contended that since Twitter and other social media platforms are used by government authorities and departments, the platforms are effectively discharging public duties. At the same time, as publishing platforms they also allowed the circulation, promotion and advertising of fake and seditious content and there was no law to prevent them from doing so, it added.
Goenka filed the petition after he noticed a tweet in 2019 — posted by Sikhs for Justice, an organisation outlawed by the government that year — which appeared as a promoted (or paid) content on his timeline.
Because Twitter and social media firms are profit-making entities, expecting them to have safeguards for making social media safe and secure is important, the petition added. It further said that the logic and algorithms that Twitter uses should be shared and vetted by government authorities or any “competent authority for screening anti-India tweets”.
The Supreme Court notice comes even as the government and Twitter are engaged in a public standoff involving content takedown requests made by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) to the microblogging platform.
MeitY had asked Twitter to remove content and accounts allegedly amplifying the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide, which was trending on Twitter around January 30. The government had asked for the removal of the hashtag, which was related to the ongoing farmer protests in Delhi, arguing the use of the word “genocide” could lead to the disruption of law and order.
Twitter took action on hundreds of accounts that violated Twitter Rules and had the potential to incite harm, prevented some terms from trending and suspended over 500 accounts. It did not fully comply with the MeitY orders to block some accounts. MeitY followed up by serving a non-compliance notice to Twitter.
MeitY later also asked Twitter to block another 1,200 accounts that were flagged by security agencies as those of Khalistan sympathisers or backed by Pakistan.
Twitter did not remove all the accounts, saying it believes it "would violate their (account users) fundamental right to free expression under Indian law".
IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, speaking in Parliament on Thursday, issued a stern warning to social media firms operating in India, and said they were free to do business in India but must respect the law of the land.