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India says Twitter undermining law over opposition to new IT rules

·3-min read

India's government Thursday accused Twitter of working to undermine its legal system, escalating a battle between authorities and social media giants over new IT rules.

The US company accused police of "intimidation" after they visited its offices in the capital New Delhi to serve a notice over an inquiry into a "manipulated media" label it placed on a tweet by the ruling party's spokesman.

Twitter also slammed new regulations that its peers and digital rights activists say will threaten privacy guarantees.

The government -- which says they are needed to investigate offences relating to the country's sovereignty, national security as well as sexually explicit material -- hit back and accused Twitter of seeking to "undermine India's legal system".

"Twitter is just a social media platform and it has no locus in dictating what should India's legal policy framework should be."

The government added that "representatives of social media companies including Twitter are and will always remain safe in India and there is no threat to their personal safety and security."

Delhi Police added in a statement that Twitter was obliged under the law to cooperate with their inquiry and share "material information" about why the ruling party spokesman's tweet had been tagged.

- 'Big tech vs the Indian government' -

IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted Thursday that the government fully respected the right to privacy and the new rules were aimed at preventing "abuse and misuse of social media".

But critics say Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration is seeking to stifle online opposition in what is a huge market for Twitter, Facebook and others -- accusations the government rejects.

The new rules demand that social media companies give details of the "first originator" of posts deemed to undermine India's sovereignty, state security or public order.

Social media firms and privacy activists fear the rules' vagueness mean that the companies could be forced to identify the authors of posts critical of the government.

Twitter has expressed particular concern about the requirement to name a compliance officer who would then be criminally liable for content, and has requested at least three more months to comply.

"(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 in an emailed statement.

WhatsApp is challenging the law in India's courts, and says it would mean breaking encryption -- a cornerstone of its service which prevents anyone other than the sender and receiver from being able to read messages sent on the platform.

In a court filing this week, the Facebook-owned company said the rules infringed upon the "fundamental rights to privacy and free speech of the hundreds of millions of citizens using WhatsApp" in India.

Digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa told AFP the war of words was "just the beginning of big tech versus the Indian government".

"The people who suffer at the end of it are users... What I'd like to see is a reduction in power of (social media) platforms over our speech, but also not increasing the power of governments over platforms, because then governments can use them to censor us."

ash-stu-arc-grk/oho