NEW DELHI: The Indian government's battle with social media giants escalated Thursday with Twitter accusing the police of "intimidation" and slamming new IT rules that have also alarmed its peers and privacy campaigners.
Critics say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration wants to stifle online criticism in what is a huge market for Twitter, Facebook and others. The government rejects the accusations.
Late Monday Indian police visited Twitter's offices to serve a notice to the US company over its failure to remove a "manipulated media" label that it had placed on a tweet by the ruling party's spokesman.
It followed spats earlier this year when Twitter partially refused to comply with official requests to remove tweets critical of contentious new farming laws and of the government's handling of the pandemic.
"Right now, we are concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve," a Twitter spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
It added that together with many in civil society in India and around the world, Twitter has "concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service".
The microblogging site also criticised "core elements" of new IT rules that came into force on Wednesday and which have prompted WhatsApp to launch legal action against the Indian government.
The regulations could require social media companies to trace the "first originator" of posts deemed to undermine India's sovereignty, state security or "public order".
The firms and privacy activists fear that the vagueness of the rules mean that the companies could be forced to identify the author of posts critical of the government.
**- 'Strive to comply' -**
Twitter expressed particular concern about the requirement to name a compliance officer who would then criminally liable for content, and 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," the spokesperson said.
For WhatsApp complying with the rules would mean breaking its cherished encryption that prevents anyone other than the sender and receiver from being able to read messages sent on the platform.
WhatsApp in its court filing this week said that the rules "(infringe) upon the fundamental rights to privacy and free speech of the hundreds of millions of citizens using WhatsApp" in India.
A Facebook spokesperson said Tuesday it aims to comply but needed "to discuss a few of the issues which need more engagement with the government", adding that it "remains committed to people's ability to freely and safely express themselves on our platform."
IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said Thursday the government fully recognises and respects the right to privacy and that the new rules were only to prevent "abuse and misuse of social media."
"(The) Government welcomes criticism including the right to ask questions. The rules only empower the ordinary users of social media when they become victims of abuse and misuse," he said on Twitter.