Twitter will have to face “unintended consequences” including losing the legal protection from criminal liability that it currently enjoys if it does not comply with the new rules for digital content, according to a “last notice” issued as a “gesture of goodwill” by the central government to the social media firm.
The warning from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) escalates an already worsening standoff between the government and the social media company, which has previously urged the Centre to give it more time to comply with the new IT rules and raised concerns over the “core elements” of the IT norms.
Twitter’s “lack of commitment towards providing a safe experience to the people of India” and the refusal to comply with the new norms that came into effect on May 25 will lead to “unintended consequences” that include “losing exemption from liability” as a social media intermediary under Section 79 of the IT Act, 2000, MeitY said in the letter.
The notice did not specify a deadline for compliance, but said it should be done “immediately”.
It was issued on a day that another controversy erupted over the removal of verified badges, better known as the “blue ticks”, of vice-president Venkaiah Naidu and several Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leaders. Twitter said the verified status for Naidu was removed as the account was lying dormant for months, and that it was restored soon after. Badges for RSS leaders were also restored.
Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, grants social media companies protection from criminal action for third-party content posted on the websites.
The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, were notified in February and enforced fully on May 25. These guidelines require digital companies such as Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook to regulate content, appoint nodal officers for compliance and grievance redressal, and adopt features such as traceability of messages and voluntary user verification.
Under criticism over the past few months, the government has maintained that the new IT rules make companies more accountable for the online content posted on their websites and protects users from abuse. The companies, several experts and opposition parties believe that the norms may have a bearing on the right to free speech and privacy.
The people of India “deserve and demand” a fair mechanism to address their grievances and resolve their disputes, the ministry said, adding: “Leave alone proactively creating such a mechanism, Twitter Inc is in the inglorious bracket of refusing to do so even when mandated by law.”
Twitter India declined to respond to requests for a comment on Saturday.
MeitY also said on Saturday it wrote to Twitter on May 26 and May 28 for an update on compliance, but it was “dismayed” that the company’s responses “neither address the clarifications sought by this ministry nor indicate full compliance with the Rules”.
Among other things, the company was yet to inform the ministry about its chief compliance officer, and its grievance officer and nodal contact person were not Twitter India employees as required by the rules, MeitY said. “The office address of Twitter Inc. as mentioned by you is of a law firm in India, which is also not as per the rules,” the notice addressed to Twitter’s deputy general counsel Jim Baker pointed out.
Non-compliance will lead to “consequences” but as a “gesture of goodwill, Twitter Inc is hereby given one last notice”, the ministry added. According to government officials, Facebook, Whatsapp and Google have shared details of the officers appointed by them, but Twitter is yet to do so. Last week, Twitter urged the government to give it three months to comply with the new rules.The Delhi high court, which was hearing a plea, too asked Twitter on May 31 to follow the guidelines.
The US-based company, which has over 17 million users in India, has had multiple run-ins with the Union government since February this year, when it did not fall in line on the Centre’s request to take down content against newly enacted agriculture laws and farm protests.
Last month, Twitter also said in a statement it was worried about the safety of its staff in the country after a Delhi Police team visited its company offices for an investigation linked to the labelling of posts by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders against the Opposition Congress as “manipulated media”.
The firm said it was concerned about “the potential threat to free speech” and the “core elements” of the new IT guidelines. The statement prompted a backlash from the Centre, which called the remarks an “attempt to dictate terms to the world’s largest democracy”.
Shortly after the norms were enforced on May 25, Facebook-owned Whatsapp also challenged the rules in the Delhi high court and said that the mandate will force the messaging app to break end-to-end encryption. This mandatory requirement violates the fundamental right to free speech and is a “dangerous invasion of users privacy”, it argued in the suit