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The Indian government and Big tech — Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook are locked in to a huge battle over control and communication.

Social media and some intrepid digital news sites such as The Wire, NDTV have made up the lag in real news in India in recent years.

Big tech is controlled by for profit giant companies who pretty much decide what is ‘allowed content’ on their platforms and have started another form of censorship by regulating posts.

Is it time for nations to have a regulatory mechanism for Big Tech then?

Some reasonable restrictions need to be applied to these companies who currently have monopoly on social media. Various countries such as the US and Britain are asking the right questions to the Big Tech — are you breaking up and ending the monopolistic nature? 

In India, the BJP government — in line with other countries — has been trying to regulate digital content that it considers pesky.

Foregrounding this was a scrap where Twitter marked some tweets of the ruling party spokespersons and IT cell head as “manipulated media”.

Government vs Twitter

Twitter, which counts India as its third largest market (after the US and Japan) — with 22.1 million users — seemed to be all over the place with its response to the demands made by the government.

The government went full code red — going up the escalation ladder and threatening reprisals with the then IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad (replaced since) having a daily presser threatening Twitter.

The minister accused Twitter of not complying with the new IT rules that came in to effect on May 26 this year. The government wanted all social media giants to appoint a chief compliance officer, who the government could ask to remove objectionable content posted on the microblogging site. A nodal contact officer and grievance officer too had to be appointed.

The Twitter offices in New Delhi and Gurugram were raided by the police on May 24. The raids were ostensibly to serve notices on Twitter officials to join investigation in the “toolkit case” which had seen Twitter mark ruling party officials tweets as “manipulated media”.

BJP had accused the opposition Congress of orchestrating protest as per a “toolkit” which also roped in international celebrities like Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist and pop singer Rihanna who tweeted in support of agitating Indian farmers.

It followed a series of flash points between the government and the social media giant with issues ranging from the farmers agitation to the horror of the second wave of COVID-19.

Government officials demanded the takedown of thousands of posts which showed the extent of the misery. It also contested death numbers of the second COVID-19 wave. Twitter and Facebook took down hundreds of such posts.

Repercussions for Twitter

In a bid to appear even handed Twitter also blocked the verified accounts of Congress party, and its leader, Rahul Gandhi (since restored) on Aug. 7 this year. In total, around 5,000 accounts of party leaders and social media volunteers were locked.

An angry Gandhi accused Twitter of bias and interference in India’s politics. The company is making it its business to define our politics, he added, warning investors that “taking sides in the political contest has repercussions for Twitter.”

Ostensibly, the opposition party’s accounts were locked because Gandhi tweeted a picture of him meeting the parents of a 9-year-old girl who was gang-raped and murdered in New Delhi. Indian law prohibits identifying rape victims.

The social media company initially said in a statement that “Twitter rules are enforced judiciously and impartially for everyone on our service.” The day after Gandhi made the accusations, his Twitter account was restored, and so were the other accounts. Gandhi has not tweeted after his account was restored.

Twitter is currently facing a huge pushback in Asia’s third largest economy. In the wake of Rahul Gandhi scandal and the company’s confrontation with the government, Twitter announced that it was moving the company’s top official in India, Senior Director Manish Maheshwari, to a new position in the US. It has yet to announce a replacement. Maheshwari was recently summoned by the police because of the “toolkit” case.

The government wants the big tech companies to divulge some user information and submit it to a regulatory regime that includes potential jail terms for executives if the companies don’t comply.

Directly accountable for content

Facebook and WhatsApp are in court in India arguing India's new social media rules would circumvent encryption, a key feature of the app. WhatsApp has more than 530 million users in India. YouTube has about 450 million and Facebook has 410 million — making it the biggest market for all three.

Currently Twitter is the first post of breaking news, and a powerful tool of real time information in India.

Across the world there is an epidemic of fake news on most social media platforms. Countries across the world watched when former US President, Donald Trump was permanently banned on Twitter. It was a teachable moment in the enormous power that big tech now commands over politics.

India has come up with a local replacement for Twitter called Koo. Sadly the heavy hitters are not exactly swarming to koo. Twitter’s primacy as the first post of breaking news is unchallenged but the biggest take-away from all this is that regulation against powerful big tech is coming up in a big way.