Twitter's India woes worsen as police summon chief over viral video

Published June 18, 2021
The Twitter App loads on an iPhone in this illustration photograph taken in Los Angeles on July 22, 2019. — Reuters
The Twitter App loads on an iPhone in this illustration photograph taken in Los Angeles on July 22, 2019. — Reuters

Police in India have summoned Twitter's top official in the country to answer allegations that the US firm failed to stop the spread of a video that allegedly incited “hate and enmity” between Hindu and Muslim communities.

An official police notice, seen by Reuters, showed a case had been registered in Ghaziabad in northern Uttar Pradesh state over a video of a few men, apparently Hindu, beating an elderly man believed to be a Muslim and cutting his beard.

The police report names Twitter Inc, its local unit and seven others for their alleged roles in disseminating a video that was deemed insulting to religious beliefs and causing public mischief in a state with a long, bloody history of communal violence.

The controversy comes just as India's federal government is locking horns with Twitter over non-compliance with new IT rules, which have raised doubts whether the platform would continue to enjoy protection against legal liability for user-generated content. The new rules became effective in late May.

Read: India to Twitter: Comply with IT rules or face 'unintended consequences'

In a notice dated Thursday, Ghaziabad police wrote to Twitter India head Manish Maheshwari to appear before officials within seven days of the receipt of the summons.

“Some people used their Twitter handles to spread hatred and enmity in the society and Twitter did not take cognisance,” said the notice, which was reviewed by Reuters.

“Writings and works which promoted enmity and affected harmony between different communities in the country and the state were encouraged and such anti-society messages were allowed to go viral.”

Twitter declined to comment, and Maheshwari did not respond to a request for comment.

IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad lashed out at Twitter this week for the Ghaziabad incident, saying its failure to act was “perplexing”.

No safe harbour

Prasad has said Twitter has not complied with a new set of government rules that required them to appoint new compliance officers by May 26.

The rules state that in case of non-compliance, protection that companies enjoy related to any liability against user generated content “shall not be applicable” and companies “shall be liable for punishment under any law”.

“The moment Twitter was non-complaint, the safe harbour protection was automatically not available,” said Shlok Chandra, a New Delhi-based lawyer who represents the federal government in various cases. “The position is very clear.”

Some free speech activists and lawyers, however, disagree.

“The central government neither has the power to bestow, nor the power to 'withdraw' the exemption from liability [...] The determination of the question whether Twitter is entitled to seek exemption from liability is solely within the domain of the courts,” Delhi-based Ira Law firm said in a LinkedIn post this month.

Three special rapporteurs appointed by a top United Nations human rights body last week urged India to review the new IT rules, saying their broadened scope did not conform with international human rights norms and could threaten digital rights.

To comply with India's new IT rules, companies such as Twitter needed to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal officer and a resident grievance officer. But LinkedIn job postings show all three positions were currently open at Twitter.

The social media giant has however retained an interim chief compliance officer, it said this week, adding that it was making all efforts to adhere to the new IT rules.

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