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Illegal removal of social media content: Internet experts

At the Center’s request, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter deleted around 100 posts in India last week.

Twitter alone deleted 52 posts. These included tweets from Congress MP Revanth Reddy, West Bengal Minister Moloy Ghatak, actor Vineet Kumar Singh and filmmakers Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das.

Posts criticized the government and some called for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to resign.

Gurshabad Grover, Senior Researcher, Center for Internet and Society, says Section 69A of the Information Technology Act 2020 allows the government to issue directions to block any online content in the interest of ” the sovereignty and integrity of India, the defense of India, the security of the state, (and) friendly relations with foreign states or public order…”.

The rules state that the creator of the content in question must be summoned for a hearing before a post is taken down. However, the government does not follow its own rules. Many of those who posted critical content are prominent figures, and the government can’t pretend it couldn’t track them, he says.

Social media platforms have the ability to negotiate withdrawal requests. However, historically they have always complied with government demands, as their officials risk being arrested if they fail to do so.

“In the recent past, like with the farmers’ protest, there have been instances of partial compliance, which is always a step in the right direction,” he says.

Akancha Srivastava, founder of Akancha Against Harassment, says the government is right if the tweets are factually wrong and trigger panic.

Transparency

The laws don’t allow for transparency, says Grover. A confidentiality clause prevents government orders from being seen by the public.

Requests by RTI to reveal blocking orders have also been denied in the past. Therefore, the public has no way of knowing on what basis the government requested censorship of a message.

However, many of these orders are uploaded to the Lumen database, he adds (see box).

Know your rights

In an Internet Freedom Foundation article, its executive founder, Apar Gupta, says the police cannot arrest or threaten someone for Covid-related content.

“It is also not illegal to criticize your government,” he explains.

“Posts only ask for help and responsibility.”

Possible steps

An aggrieved citizen has little recourse, says Grover.

“You can try a legal remedy if you are satisfied that your constitutional right has been violated. However, this is not a feasible option for many,” he says.

Lumen Database

A US collaborative archive called Lumen Database aims to protect legal online activities from legal threats.

It collects and analyzes legal complaints and requests to remove online content in order to help Internet users know their rights. Last Saturday, Twitter submitted a report to the Lumen database on the actions it took on 50 tweets over the past month. Some URLs that have now been blocked in India contained information about the second wave of the pandemic and criticized the government’s handling of it. A few showed photos and videos of the recent Maoist ambush in Chhattisgarh that left up to 22 policemen dead.

A common phenomenon

Censorship of social media posts is not new in India. In February, at the height of the farmers’ protest, Twitter covered up several accounts, including those of Caravan magazine and Kisan Ekta Morcha, an umbrella organization for the protesters. The accounts were, however, restored a few hours later. Twitter had said its action responded to a legal request.

The Center had also ordered Twitter to block nearly 1,200 accounts suspected of being linked to sympathizers in Khalistan or Pakistan a few days later.

The Lumen database published the government orders that Twitter had complied with.

Tweets deleted

Congressman Revanth Reddy had tweeted a photo of a mass cremation. He said the country’s health system had collapsed.

West Bengal Justice Minister Moloy Ghatak’s tweet criticized Modi for exporting vaccines. It included footage of his campaign rallies and compared him to Nero, the emperor who played the violin when Rome burned.

Famous Gangs of Wasseypur actor Vineet Kumar Singh’s tweet criticized drug shortages and the holding of political rallies amid the pandemic.

Director Vinod Kapri tweeted a video of a mass cremation along with a comment that the promise to make more cremation grounds had been kept. The tweet was in all likelihood a reference to Modi’s 2017 election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, when he said Hindu cremation grounds were fewer than Muslim burial sites.


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