The Indian government has admitted that the letters it sent to Twitter ordering the platform to take down the ‘manipulated media’ tag from the tweets of people like BJP’s Sambit Patra were not issued under the Information Technology Act.
This is the first time that the Indian government has admitted that the two letters it sent to Twitter were not sent under the IT Act, which is the overarching law that governs the internet ecosystem in India. Twitter, however, had not removed the label despite the government’s letters asking to do so. In a way, treating the government like any other user.
The government’s admission came in response to a Right to Information query filed by the Delhi-based digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation. The reply is an admission that the government machinery went out of its way for ‘related persons’, so to say. A privilege that really ought not to be available ideally outside the law.
The tweets in question contained a screenshot which was claimed to be a toolkit developed by the opposition Congress Party to highlight the work their workers were doing to help people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Later, a fact check by Alt News claimed that the screenshot seemed doctored following which Twitter marked them as manipulated media.
In May, the government had sent two separate letters to Twitter. In the letters, the government objected to Twitter’s “unilateral designation” of “tweets posted by prominent Indian leaders and social activists” as “manipulated media” while the matter was being investigated.
The IT Act empowers the government to issue takedown notices to social media platforms, and the platforms in turn have to adhere to those directions to keep their status as an intermediary.
In that context, the revelation that the letters were not issued under the IT Act, essentially meaning that they had no legal basis, is startling. “We call upon [IT Ministry] to refrain from over-reaching its powers and acting beyond its legal ambit,” the Internet Freedom Foundation said on Twitter.
We have reached out to the IT Ministry and Twitter for comment and will update the story in case they respond.
It is worth recalling that several episodes quickly unfolded after Twitter refused to remove the manipulated media tag. The Delhi Police’s anti-terror squad reached its offices in Delhi and Gurugram to serve a notice to the company, a move which was termed as “intimidation” by Twitter, but was branded as “routine” by the police.
The social media platform and the government were also locked in a war of words over Twitter’s non-compliance with the new social media rules. Former IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad criticised Twitter over its non-compliance several times and his replacement, Ashwini Vaishnaw also sounded a caution to the company on his first day of taking charge of the ministry.
Twitter has since also been reprimanded by the Delhi High Court—multiple times—over its non-compliance with the new social media rules.