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Exclusive details: Here are some of the points that the Parliamentary Standing Committee, headed by Shashi Tharoor, raised with Twitter

According to sources, the panel is so far, unanimously unhappy with Twitter's response as it is believed that the responses were scripted and did not satisfactorily explain Twitter's biased stand and their insistence on not adhering to Indian laws.

As the conflict between the government of India and Twitter continues over the new Information Technology rules, the Indian officials of the microblogging site were questioned by the Parliamentary Panel on Information Technology on various issues.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology headed by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor had summoned the company officials to question them on “Safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms including special emphasis on women security in the digital space.” Accordingly, Twitter India’s Public Policy Manager Shagufta Kamran and legal counsel Ayushi Kapoor appeared before the panel on Friday.

Several issues were brought to the notice of Twitter and according to sources in the know, the Committee was unanimous in its demand that Twitter adheres to Indian laws.

The issues that that Parliamentary Standing Committee brought up with Twitter ranged from adherence to Indian laws, to child porn videos on Twitter and its biased approach that has penalised by several countries across the world.

Adherence to Indian law brought up, Twitter remains brazen

When the committee asked what the company follows, Indian law or its own policies, the Twitter officials replied that they follow their own policies, as they are equally important. By this, they implied that they won’t follow Indian laws if they conflict with Twitter policies.

However, the committee members took a strong objection to it, and made it clear that the law of the land is supreme, not their policies.

Child pornography on Twitter

Another important aspect that was brought up by the Parliamentary Standing Committee was the issue of Child pornography. The Committee asked what Twitter does when it comes across posts promoting child porn and whether it alerts the Indian authorities regarding the existence of such content that goes against the POCSO Act.

According to sources, Twitter responded in the negative. It said that it does not alert the Indian authorities regarding the existence of such content but instead, alerts an NGO instead.

To this, the committee informed that this is against the law of the land and Twitter is required by law to inform the police about the existence of child porn content as it is prosecutable under the stringent POCSO law.

Twitter implicates itself? Talks about how algorithms promote specific content

Interestingly, Twitter ended up tying itself up in knots and implicating itself in front of the Parliamentary Standing Committee. During the hearing, the Twitter representative said that they ensure that they promote “good conversation” and suppresses “bad conversation”. To this, the members of the committee asked how they manage to do that.

Twitter responded saying that they have an algorithm that chooses which conversation they should promote and which they should not.

To this, the parliamentary committee retorted that with this, Twitter has effectively admitted that they function as a publisher and not as an intermediary. If Twitter does not function as an intermediary, the safety harbour net provided to intermediaries essentially means that they will not be held responsible for the content posted on their platform.

It is pertinent to note that one of the most significant provisions of these guidelines is that if the social media platforms don’t comply with the provisions prescribed in the guidelines, this will attract penal provisions as per the Information Technology Act. The new guidelines say that the social media intermediaries must follow the due diligence mentioned in it, and if any intermediary does not follow the due diligence, the safe harbour provisions will not apply to them.

Section 79 of the Information Technology Act defines this safe harbour, which basically makes them not liable for any content posted by users on their platforms. It says that an intermediary shall not be liable for any third-party information, data, or communication link made available or hosted by them, provided they themselves didn’t initiate such communication, and observes due diligence under the IT act.

Serving India since 2013, they say, but won’t adhere to Indian laws

Twitter told the Parliamentary Standing Committee that it has been functioning in India since 2013 and has always functioned in the best interest of India. To this, the Committee said that even though Twitter claims to work in the best interest of India, it has shown no interest to adhere to the laws of India.

India had asked Twitter to ensure that they appoint a grievance officer and a compliance officer in India. However, they have refused to do so. To this, Twitter said that they have appointed an interim compliance officer, however, the committee said that it was not the requirement posed by India.

In fact, the Parliamentary Standing Committee also pointed out that while Twitter claims to look out for Indian interests, it took 12 days to correct the mistake by Twitter that marked Ladakh as a part of China.

Many countries fined Twitter, why should India not

The Parliamentary Standing Committee told Twitter that several counties have imposed fines on Twitter for not adhering to their laws and in turn, asked them why India should not impose a fine on them as well.

It is pertinent to note that Twitter was fined €450,000 (£400,000) by the Data Protection Commission in Ireland for breaking Europe’s GDPR data privacy rules. It ruled that Twitter failed to notify it within 72 hours after identifying a data breach in January 2019, and it also did not adequately document what had happened. Twitter has accepted responsibility.

Fake news, manipulated media and bias

The Parliamentary Standing Committee also brought up the bias of Twitter and the double standard in dealing with the Capitol Hill insurrection in the USA after the victory of President Biden and dealing with inflammatory tweets during the Red Fort insurrection in India.

Pointing this out, it was also mentioned that the manipulated media tag was applied to tweets where a Congress toolkit was being exposed, however, in the Ghaziabad episode where fact-checkers like AltNews were creating a fake hate crime to implicate Hindus by muting the audio in the video, Twitter did not mark the tweets as ‘manipulated media’. To this, sources indicate that Twitter claimed that those tweets did not fall under the category of ‘manipulated media’ since it was not altered and did not pose a risk to peace and law and order.

To this, the panel did point out that the video had the potential to spark violence in the country given that it was being given a fake communal angle.

The Parliamentary Committee also questioned Twitter about how they partner with fact-checkers, AltNews for example, who was caught spreading fake news in the Ghaziabad case. To this, Twitter said that they were not in their payrolls, however, they had “advisors” for fact-checking.

Twitter is meant to get back to the committee about what the parameters are to appoint such “advisors” and who these “advisors” actually are.

Further, sources have indicated that Facebook too was supposed to be a part of this discussion, however, Facebook claimed that during the times of COVID, they are not physically being present for any engagement. The panel has, per sources, instructed Facebook to appear before the panel regardless.

Once Twitter and Facebook both get back to the panel with answers that they are meant to provide, the panel will submit its report to the ministry. According to sources, the panel is so far, unanimously unhappy with Twitter’s response as it is believed that the responses were scripted and did not satisfactorily explain Twitter’s biased stand and their insistence on not adhering to Indian laws.

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Nupur J Sharma
Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017

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