“The only valid form of censorship is the choice of the consumer to not consume” - These are words that aptly subsume exactly what’s wrong with Indian media and its discourse. With the centre stirring up a hornet’s nest, targeting Twitter, BJP is making headlines on the very same platform it is attempting to undermine. Does Indian Polity feel threatened because of the platform provided by Twitter, enabling public discussion and dissent? Or are these fears well-grounded and unlike what the dissendents say, not malafide?
This article will dissect and unravel the various layers of the BJP-Twitter conundrum, in context with the recent Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code.
The issue was kicked off in February when the center passed a new set of rules for all social media platforms running points in India. The rules so issued are the “Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code”. The rules were expansive, however, the one highlighting feature was its mention of censorship. The rules propounded that per the newly issued guidelines, scrutiny regarding certain vaguely defined words, was to be practiced. The rules requested the setting up of a new compliance team that would take down any content falling under the purview of these rules, within 36hours.
These new guidelines received severe backlash from the general public, on grounds of limiting freedom of speech and expression, per the center’s convenience. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a United States-based digital rights group, has argued that they will have “profound implications for the privacy and freedom of expression” since they “create new possibilities for government surveillance of citizens” and “threaten the idea of a free and open internet built on a bedrock of international human rights standards”.
Twitter especially, has been on center stage while this debacle unfolded, because of their initial refusal of the center’s request regarding the same. The govt asked the micro-blogging site to take down accounts featuring criticism of the state in connection with the large-scale farmer protests that had been on since November. The social network initially refused, but eventually relented after its local employees were threatened with prison time. The company also published a blog post in which it said, “we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law.” Thus, establishing the Indian Government as an antagonist in Twitter’s dispensation of its operations. Twitter alleges that the capital had abused its power by issuing arbitrary and disproportionate orders to delete several tweets from its platform. “Blocking of such information is a violation of the freedom of speech guaranteed to citizen-users of the platform. Further, the content at issue does not have any apparent proximate relationship to the grounds under Section 69A,” it argued.
Taking on Twitter
On May 24, Twitter’s Delhi offices were raided by Delhi police. This was seen as the BJP furthering its propaganda of a “manipulated media”. Ever since the company and the Bhartiya Janata party have been involved in a very public battle regarding policy, such moves of “intimidation” by the government have come to light ever so often.
Twitter even moved to the Supreme Court to stay any coercive action.
Twitter has been particularly targeted, owing to its dissent, by means of vengeful, drawn-out legal battles. Cases have been filed against the site around allegations that it has, time and again published false information, ranging from an incorrect Indian map, showing areas occupied by Pakistan as not part of India, as well as allegations that content related to child pornography was also available on the platform. On July 5, the government filed an affidavit in the Delhi High Court arguing that Twitter had lost the immunity from legal action provided to online platforms because it had failed to comply with portions of the new IT rules.
Section 69A of the Information Technology Act,2000 empowers the central government to issue orders, blocking any online content on discretionary grounds and arrest the culprit.
The Information Technology Act, 2000 introduced by Pramod Mahajan was enacted by the Parliament of India in June 2000 and has been in force since.
Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, one in contention at the moment, deals with cyber-crime and electronic commerce in India.
The Section cites that the central government has the power to :
- Issue directions to remove objectionable content on social media and any other website. To block the online content in the wake of sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, defense of India, and friendly relations with foreign States.
- The procedure and safeguards subject to which such blocking for access by the public may be carried out shall be such as may be prescribed.
- The concerned authorities failing to comply with the direction (sub-section 1) issued might be punished with imprisonment for a term up to seven years and shall also be liable to a fine.
When contested in the apex court, it reassured that miscarriage of justice wasn't an underlying agenda, citing the underlying safeguards in place. Supreme Court further stated that national security is above individual privacy. The court ensured that arbitrary use of the act will be monitored and that the section is very crucial in upholding the dignity of the country as well as other constitutional institutions of the country.
Twitter: The Indian Demographic
India’s relationship and consumer contribution to the microblogging site is one of the reasons why it is under the radar and bearing the brunt of these new guidelines.
The impact Twitter has on Indian polity and public discourse goes beyond numbers. It is thus more qualitative than quantitative. The reason I think that’s important to grasp is because Twitter India merely constitutes a fifth of its total user base. Approximately only 1% of the Indian population uses Twitter, i.e. 15 million people roughly, as opposed to Facebook’s 410 million user base and WhatsApp's extending 500 million.
However, these numbers are not an indicator of Twitter’s significance, especially in politics.
This is where the waters start getting muddy because the primary reason Twitter is targeted despite its limited user base is that it holds the power to change the course of the political conversation. This is the reason why BJPfeels threatened by twitter’s stake in public discourse.
Because it was BJP that initiated this offensive against Twitter, the case in point will of BJP’s only. The BJP’s mammoth rise in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was almost entirely campaigned via Twitter which then trickled out to larger audiences through the regular news media. BJP’s presence on the site has only grown since then, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi often using it as his primary public outreach tool. From the pandemic to international relations, government policy is often announced first on Twitter. So critical is the platform in politics that even complaints against Twitter by the Indian government are often made, ironically enough, on Twitter.
Newsmakers of the nation use this platform frivolously and often news stories contain twitter threads of prominent leaders reacting to said news story.
The current ruling government goes to significant lengths to ensure that speech is heavily monitored, scrutinized, and controlled, abusing a slew of laws governing the news media space. The content removal requests resting with Twitter are tangible evidence of how the government perceives twitter’s stake as unpalatable.
The first half of 2020 (the latest data made public) witnessed upwards of 2000 removal requests ( approximately 2,772 requests) from India – an increase of almost four fold compared to the last six months of 2019. Notably, the period overlapped with demonstrations against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, thus witnessing frivolous political activity. This increase in requests, coinciding with CAA protests is not a coincidence.Twitter's roots in Indian politics run deep and the government is hell-bent on uprooting them with all its might.
The passive-aggressive “intimidation” that Twitter experienced at the behest of the BJP is a move to be condemned. India’s constant low performance and rank in the press freedom index is justified when such offensives are pieced together, allowing the citizen to see the bigger picture. What's even more telling is the fact that news of these low rankings is met with more censorship, instead of recourse.
Undermining freedom of speech and expression and putting tech giants under siege, for merely enabling the same and dispensing their core operations, is an indicator that as long as political parties like BJP stay in power to abuse their power, the battle against censorship is a losing battle.