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The woes and woes of Twitter in India

Within 48 hours, Twitter has been sent a letter by the IT Parliamentary Committee, has had three FIRs filed against it, has received another letter from the National Commision for Women, and been dragged to the Supreme Court over a 10-day old FIR

Aditi Agrawal
Published: Jun 30, 2021 08:40:57 PM IST
Updated: Jun 30, 2021 09:08:55 PM IST

The woes and woes of Twitter in IndiaImage: Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images​

While it took the IT Parliamentary Committee about two-and-a-half hours to deal with both Facebook and Google, Twitter drew the brunt of the members’ ire on June 18, 2021, in a 100-minute deposition. Twitter’s public policy manager Shagufta Kamran and legal counsel Ayushi Kapoor were questioned over why the platform had not appointed the three required officers to comply with the new Intermediary Rules. It is understood that Twitter’s representatives cited the Covid-19 pandemic as the reason for not appointing the necessary people. At least one committee member said that Twitter needed to obey the law of the land. 

In a subsequent 30-minute deposition by officials from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), which included Secretary Ajay Prakarsh Sawhney, it is understood that MeitY said that, in its opinion, Twitter had lost its safe harbour by complying with the Rules. 

Read more about how courts, and not the government, are the only ones that can confer or take away the safe harbour status here.

‘Who are your fact checkers?’ asks committee

In an obvious reference to the furore around a recent viral video on Twitter that showed young Hindu men forcefully cutting the beard of an aged Muslim man, committee members asked Twitter to furnish information on their factcheckers. In a subsequent First Information Report (FIR) filed by Ghaziabad police June 15, Mohammad Zubair, the co-founder of Alt News, and Twitter were named alongside a host of journalists. Twitter was named in the FIR since it hadn’t labelled the video as ‘misleading content’. 

As per Twitter, the platform does not appoint any fact-checkers in India and only engages with IFCN (International Fact Checking Network) certified fact-checking agencies in India, only for the limited purpose of sharing relevant updates to Twitter Rules. Alt News is not an IFCN-certified agency but BOOM, The Quint’s WebQoof are.  

The FIR had also named Twitter’s managing director, Manish Maheshwari. Last week, Karnataka High Court had prevented UP Police from taking any “coercive action” against Maheshwari as a result of which, on June 29, the it reportedly approached the Supreme Court to challenge the HC order. 

How are you dealing with child porn, panel had asked Twitter

It is understood that the issue of combatting child sexual abuse material (CSAM) was also brought up. At least one member had asked Twitter if the platform informs Indian law enforcement agencies when it comes across CSAM. Twitter explained that such information is sent to an NGO, it is understood, in a probable reference to National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a private non-profit organisation established by the US Congress. 

As such, Twitter, like a host of other internet companies including Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Microsoft, report CSAM that it finds to NCMEC’s CyberTipline. In 2020, 1,400 electronic service providers had registered with NCMEC and given data to it as per American law on US-based Electronic Service Providers. 

In April 2019, NCMEC had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Indian Home Ministry’s National Crime Records Bureau to receive tips from its CyberTipline. In situations where law enforcement agencies or other authorities identify CSAM and notify Twitter, the micro-blogging platform takes it down and notifies NCMEC. Notifying helps because it analyses the reports received from all these internet-related companies to detect patterns and to in turn inform companies of suspected CSAM. 

NCMEC, Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook, also use PhotoDNA, a technology developed by Microsoft and then Dartmouth University professor Hany Farid, to create a hash, or unique digital signature, of the image which it then compares to a known and ever-expanding repository of CSAM. 

Since the meeting on June 18, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has filed a complaint on the basis of which the Delhi Police filed an FIR against Twitter for not acting on links showing child exploitation. In a statement to Forbes India, a Twitter spokesperson said that the company has a “zero tolerance policy for child sexual exploitation” and has a “proactive approach to combatting sexual exploitation of minors on our service”.  

Letter sent to Twitter over blocking IT Minister’s account

On June 25, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had tweeted that Twitter had blocked access to his account for an hour over a copyright violation under the US’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). He further tweeted that such blocking was in violation of Rule 4(8) of the Intermediary Rules because the platform did not “provide [him] any prior notice” before blocking access to his account. 

As the author of this article had pointed out then, Lok Sabha member and IT Parliamentary Committee head Shashi Tharoor’s account was also withheld through a DMCA complaint. The tweet in question (archived copy here) was from December 15, 2017, and a Lumen Database notice showed that the notice was sent on May 24, 2021 by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry on behalf of Sony Music Entertainment. The song in question? A.R. Rahman’s “Maa Tujhe Salaam”. 

In a statement to Forbes India after the June 25 incident, a Twitter spokesperson had said: "We can confirm that the Honourable Minister’s account access was temporarily restricted due to a DMCA notice only and the referenced Tweet has been withheld. Per our copyright policy, we respond to valid copyright complaints sent to us by a copyright owner or their authorized representatives.”

Now, Twitter’s action was not in violation of the IT Rules since as per Rule 4(8), Twitter was only supposed to notify the user whose content is blocked before disabling access to the content. Any appeals would happen after the content has been blocked. As long as Twitter sent Prasad an email notifying him about the impending blocking, it is in adherence. 

However, Twitter may have been in violation of its own copyright policy because a first-time copyright violation leads to blocking of content, not of the account. It is only when multiple copyright complaints are received that Twitter may lock accounts or take other actions. As per the Lumen Database, this tweet was the only tweet by Prasad that had a DMCA complaint against it, on which Twitter had acted. While Tharoor’s handle yielded six notices, they all dealt with the same tweet in a list of tweets with mostly the same content posted by other handles.    

It is to be noted that this step was taken not by algorithms but by humans. According to Twitter, there are global teams that ascertain whether or not a DMCA complaint is valid, and if it is, these (human) teams decide to take down the copyright violating content. 

Five days later, this situation has snowballed. According to a PTI report, the Tharoor-led committee has asked Twitter to explain within 48 hours why it blocked had Prasad and Tharoor’s access to their accounts. 

Woe number n+1: Wrong map of India

In case the FIR by Ghaziabad police, NCPCR’s complaint, letter from the Parliamentary Committee were not enough, Twitter once again found itself in hot water for showing a map of India when (ironically) a Twitter user @thvaranam tweeted a map on a Twitter careers page that showed Aksai Chin as a part of China and the rest of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir as a territory separate from both India and Pakistan. 

India considers Aksai China as well as the entirety of the Jammu and Kashmir as Indian territory though often maps show dotted lines to represent Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) and Aksai Chin as disputed territories.

Within an hour, right-wing publication OpIndia had published an article about the tweet, soon followed by other major news publications in the country. Forbes India has learnt that this issue was also discussed in a MeitY meeting on Monday evening. The map has since been removed. 

 In the two days since, two FIRs have been filed against Twitter—one in Madhya Pradesh and one in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh. Both FIRs mention Maheshwari, while the one in UP also names Amrita Tripathi, the head of news partnerships at Twitter India. The FIR in Madhya Pradesh was filed by BJP spokesperson Durgesh Keswani while the one in Bulandshahr was filed by Praveen Bhati, L Bajrang Dal leader. 

 This is not the first time Twitter has been raked over hot coals over India’s sovereign borders. In November 2020, Twitter had to tender a written apology to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Personal Data Protection Bill for incorrectly geo-tagging Ladakh in China. At that time, IT Secretary Sawhney had also written to Twitter expressing “strong disapproval” and warning the platform for “disrespect[ing] the country’s sovereignty”. In the letter, Twitter had attributed the issue to a “software error combined with imperfect data resulting in an incorrect geo-tag”. 

National Commission for Women wants a piece of the pie

On Wednesday evening, the National Commission for Women tweeted that it had taken suo moto cognisance of Twitter profiles that share pornographic content. Chairperson Rekha Sharma has written to Maheshwari, demanding removal of all such content within a week and to communicate details of action taken within 10 days. As per the press note, NCW has shared details of few such profiles. 

It has also sent a letter to the Delhi Police Commissioner, demanding an investigation and legal action. It also pointed out that it had sent a similar complaint to Twitter previously for immediate action but nothing happened. Twitter refused to comment on the letter. 

Compliance status of Twitter

Twitter had earlier appointed an interim resident grievance officer, Dharmendra Chatur (resident of India but not a Twitter employee), but he resigned late last week. It is understood that Twitter communicated to MeitY that Chatur quit of his own volition.
His name has been replaced by Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s San Francisco-based senior director of global legal policy. While earlier the grievance redressal page listed Chatur’s law firm, Poovayya & Co’s Bengaluru address, it has now been replaced with Twitter’s San Francisco-based global headquarters’ address. It is not known when Twitter will publish its first monthly transparency report. The micro-blogging platform, much like its other social media compatriots, publishes biannual transparency reports. 

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