As Twitter moves to regulate content, govt distances itself from policing social media

Written by Sharad Raghavan | Kirtika Suneja | New Delhi | Updated: Jan 28 2012, 05:56am hrs
As social networking sites, including Twitter, moved in to regulate content on Friday, the government decided to distance itself from the policing.

Twitter announced that its new system will be able to block tweets on a countrywide basis wherever it is required by law. But the content can be viewed by the rest of the world. The announcement is a response to the run-in with communications and IT minister Kapil Sibal, who has insisted that websites take down objectionable content.

But responding to the move, a senior department of information technology official told FE, We wanted the social media companies to (only) follow the cultural sensitivities of our country. But with Twitter planning to regulate content, users privacy will be compromised. Hence, the user will now have to decide if he wants to visit social media sites where his privacy is infringed or sensitive information leaked to third parties.

However, in an emailed response, Twitter said it will not censor content but will remove stuff when (India) asks it to. When we are required by law to remove content from the site, we can do it on a granular, per country basis, rather than for the whole world. This will only happen in reaction to a valid legal process.

Sibal had recently asked several internet companies, including Google, Twitter and Facebook, to remove content depicting political personalities and gods that is deemed objectionable and insulting to India's image. The companies refused on the grounds that it impinged on users' freedom of expression and that it was impossible to pre-screen content before it went online, given the vast size and scope of the internet.

The companies already had measures in place via which a post or video could be reported as objectionable and taken down, they said.

Twitter's new policy, in that light, should go a long way in appeasing the government. According to the company's blog post describing the new policy, "The only way we could take account of those countries' limits was to remove content globally. Starting today, we give ourselves the ability to reactively withhold content from users in a specific country while keeping it available in the rest of the world."

So content on Twitter objectionable to a specific country (like pro-Nazi content, which is banned in Germany and France) will be taken down in that country, but the rest of the world will be able to view it. The same holds in the case of India and Hindu deities.

IT experts, on the other hand, saw this as a clear hand of state. "This has more to do with compliance at the local level and if India is included in the list of countries whose Tweets would be regulated, then Twitter will have to share this information with the enforcement authorities. Users should be prepared that all illegal and unlawful Tweets even anonymous ones would be put down and the identity of users would be shared with the law enforcement agencies," explained Supreme Court advocate Pavan Duggal.

On privacy issues, Duggal said: "We don't have a dedicated law on privacy, which is included in the fundamental right to life."

Twitter joins companies like Google which from March 1will consolidate all its various privacy policies for its several products into a single policy. "Our new privacy policy makes clear that, if you're signed in, we may combine information you've provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we'll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience," Alma Whitten, Google's director of privacy, said on the company's official blog.

In easy-speak, this means that if a user watches a Metallica video on YouTube, Google will collate that information and provide relevant advertisements, say, of upcoming concerts, on the user's Gmail page. The same holds for all of Google's services, be it Google+, Picasa, Gmail, Google Maps or YouTube.

This announcement raised the hackles of the internet community, but several experts say that it was only a natural progression. After all, Google is a business and needs to monetise its various services, and provide more and more targeted advertisements, they said. Other, however, say that this sharing of private information across services is a violation of privacy.

The main bone of contention about Google's new policy is that while all the previous policies had an opt-out clause, whereby a user who did not want to be tracked by Google could change his settings, the new consolidated policy has no such option: If a person wants to opt out, he will have to stop using Google services altogether.

Members of the US Congress have sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page regarding the implications of the new privacy policy but, as things stand, the new policy is still set to become operational from March 1.