Apart from the legal and ethical issues that come up, the government wants WhatsApp to be pro-active in removing content but objects to Twitter doing this!
A parliamentary panel wanting to question Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey isn’t quite as outrageous as many have made it out to be. If anything affects the life of Indian citizens, Parliament has not just a right, but a duty, to keep itself abreast of the issue, and a good way to do this is to depose individuals/officials; and it is only when Parliament is fully abreast of issues that it can effectively either control government or guide it to do the right thing. Apart from the fact that officials like the RBI Governor are called to depose before Parliament, social media heads like Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg have deposed before the US Congress; given how much of their business comes from India, it is not unreasonable for such a request to be made by India’s Parliament. Just asking a Dorsey to depose doesn’t mean Parliament is giving him any directives; both sides need to understand one another’s perspective and this meeting should help. And just as it is possible that India’s lawmakers don’t fully understand how Twitter functions or its legal and other compulsions, Twitter probably doesn’t fully understand Indian sensitivities – burning the American flag may be considered okay by many Americans, but it’s difficult to find an Indian who would feel the same about her flag.
While that process of understanding each other’s point of view goes on, both the government – including Parliament – and civil society need to understand the implications of what is being demanded of these social media firms. The BJP and its followers, for instance, are upset over various right-wing handles being suspended by Twitter; that presumably means BJP MPs will try and impress upon Dorsey the need to relook his guidelines/algorithm/process for doing so. And yet, Clause 9 of the recently issued ‘intermediaries’ guidelines under the Information Technology Act want an ‘intermediary’ – like a WhatsApp or a Twitter – to remove any information/data the moment it gets to know the information is unlawful in any sense; the parliamentary panel, in fact, wants to know whether social media is merely platforms that are not responsible for what is on them or whether they are media firms with a right to edit and curate content. Indeed, clause 9 of the ‘intermediaries guidelines’ want a Twitter/WhatsApp to “deploy technology based automated tools or appropriate mechanisms, with appropriate controls, for proactively identifying and removing or disabling public access to unlawful information or content”. So does the government want Twitter to remove content on its own or not?
Another set of issues that need to be debated, with even the Supreme Court weighing in eventually, is the issue of privacy. If a WhatsApp is to help the government in tracing where a message originated from – that’s part of the intermediaries guidelines – is this is a breach of privacy or not? And while the government says it has a process to ensure only genuine requests for tracing messages are sent to a WhatsApp, it is not clear whether this is good enough. After all, there were supposed to be safeguards for Section 66 of the IT Act also, yet two girls in Mumbai were arrested for criticizing the shutting down of Mumbai after Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray died; hardly surprising, then, that the Supreme Court struck it down. Also, as per the intermediaries guidelines, social media platforms have to remove/block content/users as soon as there is a court order – but what happens if this gets struck down by a higher court? Getting Dorsey to Parliament will be relatively easy, but once that is done, what are MPs to tell him to do in unambiguous terms, even if you assume he is willing to do exactly what they want? With a dialogue starting with Twitter, a larger conversation is needed within the country on what can and should be expected of social media platforms since clamping down too hard may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.