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In Parliament, MeitY reveals decision taken on Twitter’s safe harbour immunity; more on ‘manipulated media tag’ issue

Twitter has been in a tussle with the Indian government over compliance with the IT Rules which require social media intermediaries to appoint grievance and nodal contact officers, among others. 

In response to two parliamentary questions in the Lok Sabha, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) revealed that it has made a decision on removing Twitter’s safe harbour immunity and said that it “has been engaged” with the social media platform on the issue of “labelling the tweets of some leaders as manipulated media.”

Responding to a question asked by Lok Sabha MP Pradyut Bordoloi on the matter, MeitY mentioned that Twitter had been non-compliant with the new IT rules at the time of its deadline of May 26 which makes it liable to lose its safe harbour protection under Section 79 of the IT Act.

Meanwhile, in response to Lok Sabha MP Kanumuru Raghu Ramakrishna Raju’s question on its investigation into the platform’s use of the ‘manipulated media tag’, MeitY said that it had reached out to Twitter but no specific details on how its policy (on ‘Synthetic and Manipulated Media’) became applicable has been shared.

Why it matters? Twitter has been at odds with the government over the past year. The platform was late in complying with the IT rules which came into effect on May 26. Non-compliance with the IT rules can lead to the loss of a social media platform’s safe harbour immunity. At present, there are multiple legal battles that Twitter is fighting in India, and in one such court hearing, the government had submitted that Twitter’s safe harbour immunity has been withdrawn. Loss of safe harbour, if experts are to be believed, can make Indian operations for the platform extremely difficult.

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The ministry’s responses in Parliament

Justification for removing safe harbour: The Ministry said that Twitter was in non-compliance with the rules by the compliance deadline of May 26. It had not appointed its Chief Compliance Officer, Nodal Contact Person and a Resident Grievance Office, as mandated by the rules.

Justification for looking into ‘Manipulated Media’ tag: In response to Raju’s question on whether Twitter was in non-compliance with the IT rules by putting the ‘Manipulated Media’ tag on certain tweets and if there had been further action, MeitY admitted that the matter wasn’t under the purview of the rules.

On what MeitY told Twitter about the ‘Manipulated Media’ tag: MeitY said that it had “pointed out to Twitter that they are violating the principle of natural justice and urged Twitter to be transparent and equitable in applying the criteria.”

What do the IT rules require?

The IT rules require social media intermediaries to –

  • Appoint key managerial roles: Significant Social media intermediaries (with more than 50 lakh registered users) must appoint a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person, and resident grievance officer, all of whom must be Indian residents and employees of the platform
  • Disabling content within 36 hours of government order: The rules also ask intermediaries to provide information for verification of identity or assist any government agency for crime prevention and investigations no later than 72 hours of receiving a lawful order. They also have to preserve records of disabled content for 180 days.
  • Proactively identify and take down content using automated tools
  • Publish periodic compliance reports

Non-compliance with these rules might result in the loss of safe harbour protection granted to intermediaries, according to Sub-section 1 of Sec 79 (A) of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

“(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force but subject to the provisions of sub-sections (2) and (3), an intermediary shall not be liable for any third party information, data, or communication link made available or hosted by him.” – IT Act, 2000

What is the controversy around Twitter’s manipulated media tag?

In early May 2021, a few tweets were posted that included a snapshot of an alleged Congress toolkit to misrepresent the government’s pandemic efforts. Many prominent BJP leaders including spokespersons Sambit Patra and Priti Gandhi had tweeted about it, and their tweets were subsequently marked as ‘manipulated media’.

Soon after, based on a complaint filed by Congress, the Delhi Police launched an investigation into the matter and visited Twitter India’s office in New Delhi to serve a notice. But, in a statement to ANI, unnamed officials in Delhi Police had said that they were seeking clarification from Twitter on the classification of a tweet by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra as manipulative media.

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It was later revealed that MeitY sent a letter to Twitter’s global team objecting to the microblogging platform’s use of the tag “manipulated media” to label tweets by a few Indian political leaders.

Full text of questions and answers

On Safe Harbour Immunity

Question: (a) whether the Government has taken any decision to remove the safe harbour immunity for the microblogging website Twitter under IT rules;

(b) if so, the details of the criteria and the evaluation that was undertaken for the said decision; and

(c) if not, the reasons therefor?

Answer: (a) and (b): Twitter is a Significant Social Media Intermediary (SSMI) as per the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 notified on 25th February 2021. The additional due diligence mandated for SSMIs have also become effective from 26th May, 2021. All the intermediaries providing services in India are expected to comply with these Rules. In case of non-compliance with the Rules, rule 7 of the above said Rules becomes applicable and the intermediaries are liable to lose their exemption under section 79 of the Information Technology Act 2000

On 26th May 2021, Twitter was non-compliant as it failed to appoint Chief Compliance Officer, Nodal Contact Person and a Resident Grievance Office as mandated in the Rules.

For part (c) the ministry said that the question does not apply.

On Manipulated Media Tag

Question: (a)  whether Twitter has violated ‘Intermediary guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, Rules 2021’ of Information Technology by labelling the tweets of some leaders and others as manipulated media;

(b)  if so, the details thereof;

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(c)  the details of the defence comments submitted by Twitter in this regard; and

(d)  the action taken by the Government thereon?

Answer: (a) and(b): Government has enacted the Information  Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and DigitalMedia Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 to create accountability of intermediary platforms and enhanced user safety. On 26th May 2021, Twitter was non-compliant of these Rules because it did not appoint key functionaries including Chief Compliance Officer, Nodal Contact Person and the Resident Grievance Officer. The issue of labelling of user tweets as manipulated media does not come under the purview of above said Rules. Further, on the issue of manipulated media, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has pointed out to Twitter that they are violating the principle of natural justice and urged Twitter to be transparent and equitable in applying the criteria.

(c) and (d): As per Twitter, the labelling of certain messages as ‘Manipulated Media’ has been done as per their “Synthetic and Manipulated Media Policy”. However, no specific details of how this policy became applicable have been shared. Government has been engaged with Twitter on this issue.

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Written By

I cover health technology for MediaNama, among other things. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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