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Home / Opinion / Views /  Twitter needs vigilance but under a fair regime

The risk of waves and wavelets of covid has shaken confidence in our economy’s path out of corona’s wily spikes. Truth cannot afford to be yet another casualty, if our current odds of pandemic control are to improve. This is the proximate context for India’s new rules for social media that flared up into a face-off after they kicked in last week. On the heels of WhatsApp taking the Centre to court, Twitter opened a front of defiance over how major intermediaries had been asked to comply. This online host-in-chief of micro-blogs alleged a “dangerous overreach that is inconsistent with open, democratic principles" and pointed to a particular rule that could see a must-hire boss of compliance slapped with criminal charges for violative stuff on its platform, the state’s “blanket" authority to seek data on users, and proactive monitoring of content. This dispenser of widely webcast ‘tweets’ also alleged “intimidation tactics" by Indian police and pressure to axe tweets that it had deemed as legitimate free speech. In response, the government pointed out that “law making and policy formulation is the sole prerogative of the sovereign", in the words of information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who added it was instead Twitter that often scuttled freedom of expression with its “opaque" interventions in what gets out. The US-based company, still in breach, has sought more time to abide by Indian guidelines. But, while it gets lumped with chat networks as an intermediary, how it operates is of greater national concern.

Our discourse on the right to express ourselves, and its limits, should not miss a key distinction: whether a post goes online for private or public access. The restraints we need differ. While an encrypted message is meant for a closed group, a tweet is open to all. It has even served as a megaphone for mobs. Dangerous material on various apps has played havoc with peace and harmony in events that easily justify our legal speech curbs, but posts in the public domain demand a far stricter vigil. Digital tools of mediation may technically let a private platform enforce its own terms of usage for civility. Yet, in general, privately-drafted norms cannot prevail over a country’s sovereign will, so long as the latter is constitutional.

It’s the particulars of this stand-off that lend it its complexity. Twitter and the Centre both accuse each other of what amounts to arbitrary content moderation. As in the US, the app’s effort to intervene in what leaders said was sure to stir up a storm over political biases. If former US president Donald Trump had his tweets flagged for dubious facts (before his account was suspended), a few recent tweets by members of the ruling party here have faced similar action. This makes Twitter a publisher, argue its critics, and so it should be held liable for all content. To the extent that moderators make judgement calls, this point clearly has merit. What should worry us, however, is a regime that lets open platforms retain their shield against being sued for what users do, and then also hands law-enforcers a Damocles sword that can be dangled over them by the day’s powers. Unless we place a judicial buffer between platforms and the police, unfair gag orders could warp public debates and worsen our outcomes. We need a rule-book that’s aligned with our laws, no doubt. But rules must never be in a position to stifle voices, especially not in a democracy struck by a crisis.

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