Why are Twitter and WhatsApp miffed with Indian authorities?

By Murali Krishnan

The Indian government’s battle with social media giants escalated on Thursday with Twitter accusing the police of “intimidation.”

The micro-blogging site’s statement came days after Delhi police visited Twitter’s offices to serve a notice in connection with a tweet from a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesman that the company labelled as “manipulated.”

“Right now, we are concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve,” a Twitter spokesman said.

“We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT rules,” he added.

‘A lot of arm-twisting happening’

Peeved by Twitter’s move, the government lashed out at the American firm, saying its statement on the country’s new IT rules is an attempt to dictate its terms to the world’s largest democracy.

“India has a glorious tradition of free speech and democratic practices dating back centuries. Protecting free speech in India is not the prerogative of only a private, for-profit, foreign entity like Twitter,” said a government statement.

The statement posted on Koo, an Indian social media platform, further pointed out that law-making and policy formulation is the “sole prerogative of the sovereign” and a social media platform like Twitter has no locus in dictating what India’s legal policy framework should look like.

“It is clearly a confrontation between sovereign rights of the country and the intermediary which has financial stakes. There is a lot of arm-twisting happening and I believe the issue will reach the country’s Supreme Court,” Pavan Duggal, a cyberlaw expert, told DW.

A tense standoff

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and social media networks have been engaged in a tense standoff in recent months over India’s new IT rules, which have also alarmed privacy rights activists.

The new regulations require internet platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to erase content authorities deem to be unlawful and to help with police investigations, including identifying the “first originator” of posts deemed to undermine India’s sovereignty, state security or public order.

They also require companies to name a compliance officer who would then be criminally liable for content published on the platform.

The sweeping regulations, which hold tech firms more accountable for content shared on their platforms, were announced in February. A 90-day grace period for complying with the rules ended Wednesday.

Critics say that Modi’s administration came up with the new rules to stifle online criticism.

“If the government was committed to free speech and dissent, how come the police arrested 25 people for putting up posters on why our vaccines are exported? The regime’s claims are bogus,” M K Venu, co-founder of the news website The Wire, told DW. The website has challenged the new IT regulations in the Delhi High Court.

The government, however, has rejected the accusations that it wants to use the new regulations to obstruct free speech.

Forced to break end-to-end encryption?

Popular messaging service WhatsApp, which claims 500 million users in India, has filed a lawsuit to stop the government enforcing the new rules. The company says they will compel it to break privacy protections to users.

“Requiring messaging apps to ‘trace’ chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp, which would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermines people’s right to privacy,” WhatsApp said in a statement.

The traceability rule would also affect WhatsApp alternatives like Signal and Telegram, which are also inherently designed to be end-to-end encrypted and are gaining popularity.

End-to-end encryption ensures that nobody other than the receiver can see a particular message. This is the exact opposite of traceability, which would reveal who sent what to whom, experts said.

‘It’s just the beginning’

WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook as well as Google have so far refrained from taking a confrontational approach and said they are working towards complying with the guidelines. Nevertheless, they have sought talks with the authorities over the new regulations.

Cyber experts say the government might not entirely block the social media sites if they fail to comply with the new rules but may levy a fine or stop the companies from doing business in India.

“Compliance from the social media companies will be difficult and the government cannot take away users’ rights. A middle path has to be found,” Prasanth Sugathan, legal director of the Software Freedom Law Center, a Delhi-based digital rights group, told DW.

Digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa told AFP news agency that the new rules and the war of words were “just the beginning of big tech versus the Indian government.”

“The people who suffer at the end of it are users … What I’d like to see is a reduction in power of (social media) platforms over our speech, but also not increasing the power of governments over platforms, because then governments can use them to censor us.”

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