UPDATED Twitter has finally broken its silence on ongoing privacy issues facing users of global social media companies.
“Twitter is deeply committed to the people of India. Our service has proven vital for the public conversation and a source of support for people during the pandemic. To keep our service available, we will strive to comply with applicable law in India. But, just as we do around the world, we will continue to be strictly guided by principles of transparency, a commitment to empowering every voice on the service, and protecting freedom of expression and privacy under the rule of law,” a Twitter spokesperson said on Thursday.
“Right now, we are concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve. We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules,” the spokesperson added. “We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation. We will continue our constructive dialogue with the Indian government and believe it is critical to adopt a collaborative approach. It is the collective responsibility of elected officials, industry, and civil society to safeguard the interests of the public.”
Two days earlier, popular messaging service WhatsApp announced that it is suing the Indian government over privacy issues as draconian new rules governing social media come into effect from Wednesday.
The lawsuit “asks the Delhi High Court to declare that one of the new rules is a violation of privacy rights in India’s constitution since it requires social media companies to identify the ‘first originator of information’ when authorities demand it,” according to news agency Reuters which first broke the news.
“Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that a requirement to ‘trace’ private messages would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said. “WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages and we will continue to do all we can within the laws of India to do so.”
Facebook-owned WhatsApp has some 400 million users in India.
“As per all established judicial dictum, no fundamental right, including the right to privacy, is absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions,” Indian IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in response. “The requirements in the Intermediary Guidelines pertaining to the first originator of information are an example of such a reasonable restriction.”
In February, the Indian government’s Information Technology (IT) ministry published the “Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules 2021.” These detailed the new rules that will govern the social media and streaming sector.
Social media platforms are not allowed to “host, store or publish any information prohibited by any law in relation to the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India: the security of the state; friendly relations with foreign states; public order; decency or morality; in relation to contempt of court; defamation; incitement to an offence, or information which violates any law for the time being in force.”
Prasad said that the ethics code would come into play only if any of the above strictures were to be contravened.
“The government of India is committed to ensure the right of privacy to all its citizens but at the same time it is also the responsibility of the government to maintain law and order and ensure national security,” Prasad said. “None of the measures proposed by India will impact the normal functioning of WhatsApp in any manner whatsoever and for the common users, there will be no impact.”
On Tuesday, Facebook said it would comply with the new rules. “We aim to comply with the provisions of the IT rules and continue to discuss a few of the issues which need more engagement with the government,” a Facebook spokesperson had said. “Pursuant to the IT Rules, we are working to implement operational processes and improve efficiencies. Facebook remains committed to people’s ability to freely and safely express themselves on our platform,” the spokesperson added.
Google has also said it will comply. “We respect India’s legislative process and have a long history of responding to government requests to remove content where the content violates the local law or our product policies,” a Google spokesperson said on Tuesday. “We have consistently invested in significant product changes, resources, and personnel to ensure that we’re combating illegal content in an effective and fair way, and in order to comply with local laws in the jurisdictions that we operate in.”
Meanwhile, Twitter has repeatedly fallen afoul of the Indian government, with the latest instance coming on Monday when the social media outfit tagged a political tweet by a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party with a “manipulated media” warning.
Several commentators have suggested that the federal government’s repeated actions against Twitter demonstrate that it is unwilling to tolerate any criticism of its COVID-19 policies and actions. India has recorded over 27 million positive cases and 311,000 deaths from the disease, according to John Hopkins University data. Both counts are likely to be underestimates.