An Indian parliamentary panel has summoned the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, to appear before it on February 25. Photo: AFP/Prakash Singh

Last week the Indian parliamentary panel on Information Technology summoned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, kicking off a storm about freedom of speech and the misuse of social media ahead of India’s 2019 general elections.

The panel wanted to hear Dorsey’s views on the subject of safeguarding citizens’ rights on social and online new media platforms on February 11.

When Dorsey was unable to attend the meeting, it was reported that panel members took a serious view of his absence and the committee summoned him to appear before it on February 25. The panel has legal powers to summon people. This is yet another episode in the series of ad hoc communications between wings of the Indian government and large internet intermediaries witnessed over the past year.

Last year when the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook data incident was widely reported, the Ministry for Electronics and IT sought details from both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook about how many Indian residents’ data was impacted during the incident. While Cambridge Analytica did not provide a clear response, Facebook admitted that the data of 560,000 Indians was compromised.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was tasked with probing possible violations of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in July. While a threatening message was sent by the ministry, the actual capacity of the government to take any legal action against Facebook or Cambridge Analytica remains legally ambiguous, given the minimal data protection regulation that exists in India.

This scandal has also been pivotal to the debate about data protection regulations in India over the last year and may have directly led to proposals such as data localization – the government wants all online data owned by Indians to remain within the territorial boundaries of India and within Indian jurisdiction.

Last year, the ministry also engaged in a long, publicly exchanged dialog with WhatsApp over the issue of the spread of misinformation on the platform that may have played some role in a series of lynchings across the country. The IT Ministry sent notices to WhatsApp insisting, among other demands, that they build traceability of messages on the platforms and warning that it will be liable to be treated as “abettors” for crimes committed using the platform.

WhatsApp has consistently insisted that this would compromise the end-to-end encryption that users enjoy. Yet again, the threats to stop services from the ministry are on a questionable legal footing.

Internet platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter enjoy great power over the dissemination of information online, and their actions go a long way in determining the nature of online discourse. It is, therefore, imperative that they are expected to take more responsibility. However, the nature of demands from the Indian government over the last year have been largely ad hoc, and in reaction to a single incident or series of incidents, without any real consideration for how these demands impact the overall regulation of these platforms.

The existing safe harbor model of governance of internet intermediaries most definitely needs to be revisited. However, almost without fail, the demands to localize data and have local offices capable of responding to data requests from the government have failed to take into account the impact such initiatives would have for civil liberties online through chilling of speech and increased surveillance.

In the case of Twitter, the problems of abuse, online harassment and threats of violence have been significant and faced by users for some years. The nature of content moderation exercised by Twitter in regulating hate speech, abuse and harassment leaves much to be desired. However, so far there has been little effort by governments to regulate platforms such as Twitter in a way that addresses the problems without clamping down on the civil liberties of citizens.

A study by the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi (IIIT-Delhi) analyzed 925 names, including those of all the main political parties and key political figures. Among other things, they also analyzed the rise and fall in the Twitter following of these names and traced the fall in count followed by a crackdown on fake accounts by Twitter in November.

This led to allegations of political bias and members of the Youth for Social Media Democracy organization protested outside Twitter’s office against its “anti-right-wing attitude.”

The timing of the summons to Twitter immediately after this again makes it look like a reactionary measure. So far, the government has not shown any real inclination to address the problem of harassment on platforms like Twitter, faced most acutely by those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

To spring to action in a reaction to the purging of fake names makes one question its priorities. Even the nature of legislative power exercised by the Parliamentary committee is unusual. As Vinay Kesari pointed out on Twitter, such summons is generally issued only by committees when they are performing quasi-judicial functions such as investigations.

The appropriate response to these problems is not ad hoc and selective demands of internet platforms, but to re-evaluate the nature of regulation. The ministry also came out with proposed amendments to the law governing intermediaries a few months ago. Once again, these amendments fail to consider the problems of lack of transparency and accountability that plague our interaction with platforms like Twitter and Facebook, rather it incentivizes even further chilling of online speech.

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