On Sunday, there were protests outside Twitter’s India office by members of a right-wing group called ‘Youth for Social Media Democracy’. protesters said, “Twitter has acquired an anti-right wing attitude. They block our accounts & impressions of the tweets. We won’t tolerate this, they will have to change their policy.” as reported by ANI.
Delhi: Members of ‘Youth for Social Media Democracy’ protest outside the office of Twitter India. Protesters say “Twitter has acquired an anti-right wing attitude. They block our accounts & impressions of the tweets. We won’t tolerate this, they will have to change their policy.” pic.twitter.com/rsgTO99uWx
— ANI (@ANI) February 3, 2019
Following the protest the Standing Committee on Information Technology summoned India’s Twitter head. The standing committee, which is headed by BJP MP Anurag Thakur is scheduled to examine the issue of ‘Safeguarding citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms’ next week (February 11). Anurag Thakur also tweeted about the scheduled hearing and opened the discussion to the public.
The Parliamentary Commitee on Information Technology will examine the issue:
SAFEGUARDING CITIZENS RIGHTS ON SOCIAL/ONLINE NEWS MEDIA PLATFORMS
MEITY & TWITTER will present their views.
— Anurag Thakur (@ianuragthakur) February 5, 2019
The committee will be hearing views of the representatives of Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MietY) and Twitter. Last month in a letter to the committee on Information Technology, BJP’s social media volunteers alleged that Twitter and Facebook have been biased against right-wing accounts and asked for a hearing on the subject.
Pro-BJP volunteers have alleged social media companies of systematically curbing free speech of individuals who oppose left-wing ideological stands. They cited suspension of handles, post-reach restrictions and barring of right wing trends from the trends list as some of the measures taken against them.
Similar claims of censorship have been made by many human right campaigners against social media companies. In 2015, Rupi Kaur posted a picture of menstruating woman which was taken down by Instagram. Another recent claim was made by Rachita Taneja in October 2018. The artist published a comic on Facebook and Instagram criticising their censorship policy. The post was taken down by both social media platforms citing that the content was against their norms. However, the comic was published following a backlash and criticism from netizens.
Recently in December 2018, Indian Government had proposed an amendment to Section 79 of the IT Act, which would require social media platforms to censor content deemed unlawful by the government. At the time MeitY said in a press release that social networks such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter must ensure that their platforms are not used to commit and provoke terrorism, extremism, violence and crime.
MeitY is currently inviting comments and suggestions on the draft Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules 2018 till February 14. The draft amendments will require companies to trace and report the origin of government deemed defamatory messages within 72 hours of receiving a complaint. The social media platforms will also be required to appoint a nodal officer in the country to deal with law enforcement agencies and communication their privacy policies every month.
In a statement, Internet Freedom Foundation, an Indian digital liberties organisation, described the proposal as “a tremendous expansion in the power of the government over ordinary citizens eerily reminiscent of China’s blocking and breaking of user encryption to surveil its citizens.”
Another internet lobby group, Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) whose members include Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc, Facebook, and Amazon had also criticised India government’s plan on regulating social media content, claiming that the stance will jeopardise citizens’ fundamental rights to privacy and free speech.
In the background of government’s significant push to bring in Intermediary Guidelines, the scheduled parliamentary hearing will pose an important event in the ongoing debate about citizen rights on new age digital platforms.