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Withdrawal of safe harbour for failure to comply with IT rules: What it means for Twitter and its users

Nevin Clinton, Flywork.io TeamFlywork.io. 

    There is a huge conflict that has been brewing for quite some time between American social networking giant Twitter and the Indian government. A lot of this has to do with the failure of the company to comply with certain provisions of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (hereinafter referred to as ‘IT Rules’). This has led to the government withdrawing ‘safe harbor’ provisions under the Information Technology Act, 2000 (hereinafter referred to as ‘IT Act’) for Twitter, meaning that the site will now be directly responsible for all the content that it displays. News portals including ANI and the Minister for Law & Justice, Communications, Electronics, and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad have confirmed the same and this could have a plethora of serious implications.

What caused the current standoff?

    First and foremost, it is essential to understand was the situation before the current standoff. Twitter was officially recognized by the Indian government under Section 79 of the IT act as an ‘intermediary. An intermediary can’t be held liable for information that is provided or made available on its platform unless the platform itself initiated the said information in question.

    The IT Rules were then announced in February 2021. With various other obligations like identifying the originator of particular content and taking down flagged content, it required all technology companies in India to appoint three officers. This was because of increasing cases of false information, rumours, and propaganda being spread on social media. It was mandated that these three people who are appointed – a chief compliance officer, nodal officer, and grievance officer must be Indian employees of the company. There was also a warning issued by the central government that if this rule was not complied with, the companies would lose their status as an intermediary with the possibility of a criminal action also being open in case of complaints being filed.

    After this ruling, tech companies like WhatsApp and Google complied with the IT rules and appointed the three officers. Twitter however did not do so and asked for more time. Even after the completion of the extra time allotted, Twitter appointed just one person as a nodal and grievance officer. Further, it was alleged by the government that the person appointed was not an employee of the company but was clarified to be a contractual employee. But with no appointment of a grievance officer, the company lost its status as an intermediary.

What this means for Twitter and its users?

   The withdrawal of the ‘safe harbour’ status of an intermediary has serious implications for Twitter. The platform is now open to a lot of penal action as it will become responsible for its users' posts. Let’s say there is a tweet that is put up by an anonymous account defaming the government. Twitter will then be responsible for the tweets and liable for penal action. However, this does not mean that the user won’t be responsible. Nothing changes with regard to the responsibility of Twitter users, but there is an added responsibility on the site and a huge one at that.

After the statements by Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, actions against the company have already started in full swing. One such action came about on the 16th of June when an FIR was filed against Twitter for not removing ‘misleading tweets’ that incited communal disharmony with regard to an incident where a Muslim man was allegedly beaten up at Loni in Uttar Pradesh. 

What next?

      It is expected that Twitter will comply with the IT Rules very soon as the burden of appointing a compliance officer is far lesser than being responsible for each and every tweet on the site. There could be sanctions for the delay in the appointment for Twitter and till the same is done, it will not be recognized as an intermediary, meaning that it will be exposed to action that can be taken for the content on its site. Therefore, the quicker Twitter acts, the more damage it will save itself from. This saga has turned out to be one with serious implications and it remains to be seen how it pans out in the future. 

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