Saturday, August 13, 2022

Holding Twitter to account

The micro-blogging platform’s refusal to conform to amended IT rules led the centre to approach the Delhi High Court, which pulled it up. The company has now asked for more time to comply with the rules.

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India’s recently enforced law, Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Ethics Code) Rules 2021, will regulate the functioning of online media portals and publishers and social media companies like Facebook and Twitter.

According to the amended IT rules, social media and streaming companies will be required to take down contentious content quicker and appoint grievance redressal officers in the country to deal with content flagged by authorities and courts and assist in investigations.

For the past several months, Twitter has been involved in a stand-off with the government over the new amendments in the country’s new IT laws, with the micro-blogging platform losing its intermediary status and becoming liable for user-generated content.

On July 5, the centre filed an affidavit in the Delhi High Court, accusing Twitter of failing to comply with the IT rules, which it described as the “law of the land”. “In spite of three months’ time granted to all significant social media intermediaries to comply with the IT Rules, 2021, Twitter Inc has failed to comply with the same,” the centre said in its affidavit in the High Court.

The affidavit further said that Twitter had not appointed a chief compliance officer, resident grievance officer and nodal contact person (even on an interim basis), and was not showing a physical contact address on its website as mandated under the rules. IT rules are “law of the land”, which the San Francisco-headquartered company has to comply with. Any non-compliance amounts to a breach of the provisions of IT rules, thereby leading to Twitter losing immunity conferred under Section 79(1) of IT Act, 2000.

Earlier, Twitter had informed the High Court that it was in the “final stages” of appointing a local grievance officer. The company’s interim resident grievance officer in India, Dharmendra Chatur, resigned on June 27 amid differences with the centre over the new norms. Twitter then appointed US national Jeremy Kessel in the role.

Following these events, the Delhi High Court on July 6 pulled up Twitter for failing to appoint a resident grievance officer, saying: “How long will your process take place? This cannot be allowed.” The Court allowed the central government to act against the social media firm.

A bench of Justice Rekha Palli told Twitter’s counsel: “Come up with a clear response, otherwise, you will be in trouble.” The Court told the government counsel: “We are not stopping you from taking action, court has not granted any protection to Twitter. If they are in violation, you know what to do.”

The centre had informed the High Court that Twitter had failed to comply with the IT Rules, 2021, on four counts: Chief compliance officer not being appointed; the position of the resident grievance officer being vacant; the position of the nodal contact person is vacant and the physical contact address, which was shown to be there on May 29, was not available on Twitter’s website.

The centre submitted before the Court that Twitter was given a three-month window to comply with IT Rules, but it did not do so. The counsel added that it was most welcome to do business in India, but had to comply.

Senior Advocate Sajan Poovayya, representing Twitter India, submitted that an interim grievance officer was appointed, but he had withdrawn his candidature on June 21. The bench responded that after June 21 and till July 6, the least it could have done was appoint another person.

“How long does your process take? If Twitter thinks it can take as long it wants in our country, I will not allow that,” said the bench. Poovayya sought time to seek instructions on the new appointment, which was allowed by the Court, and it passed over the matter. Later, Poovayya submitted that he needed more time to obtain detailed instructions from Twitter.

Meanwhile, Twitter appointed Vinay Prakash as resident grievance officer for India. On July 8, Twitter informed the Delhi High Court that it would need eight weeks to appoint a chief compliance officer, in line with the new IT rules. It further said that it had hired a resident of India as its interim compliance officer and communicated it to the ministry of information technology.

On May 31, the Delhi High Court had issued a notice to Twitter on a plea by advocate Amit Acharya. The plea had urged the Court to issue directions to the centre to pass necessary instructions to Twitter India and Twitter Inc to appoint a resident grievance officer under Rule 4 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 without any delay.

The plea had contended that every significant social media intermediary had the responsibility of appointing not only a resident grievance officer who would act as a single-point authority for receiving and disposing of complaints within a fixed time, but someone who would receive and acknowledge any order, notice and direction issued by the competent authorities.

Twitter has taken action against over 100 URLs as revealed by Twitter’s transparency report after the Delhi High Court criticised it for not complying with the Information Technology Rules 2021, which mandates it. 

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The platform took action against 38 posts for harassment, one for impersonation, one for misinformation, six for privacy infringement and 87 for defamation. Twitter’s report said: “We receive complaints in our Grievance Officer – India channel that relate to account verification, account access, or seeking assistance or information regarding an account or Twitter’s enforcement actions that are not included in the data below. The majority of complaints received in this channel during this reporting period fell into these categories.”

“In addition to the above data, we processed 56 grievances which were appealing Twitter account suspensions. These were all resolved and the appropriate responses were sent. We overturned 7 of the account suspensions based on the specifics of the situation, but the other accounts remain suspended,” it added.

Amidst the row between the centre and Twitter, newly sworn in IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said that all those who live and work in India will have to abide by the rules of the country.

—By Abhilash Kumar Singh and India Legal News Service

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