Social media giant says it is worried about the safety of its staff in India, days after police visited its office as part of an investigation related to the firm tagging certain posts by ruling BJP as manipulated.

Earlier this year, 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.
Earlier this year, 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. (Reuters)

The Indian government's battle with social media giants has escalated 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 on 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.

READ MORE: New Indian social media rules threaten freedom of expression

"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 on Thursday.

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.

READ MORE: Twitter's India snub provokes debate on compliance, free speech

WhatsApp sues government 

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.

READ MORE: WhatsApp sues India over controversial internet rules

Minister highlights 'misuse of social media'

A Facebook spokesperson said on 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 on 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.

READ MORE: Twitter bans Indian actor Kangana Ranaut for 'abusive behaviour'

Battling right-wing government 

Leaders of PM Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party recently shared portions of a document on Twitter they said was created by the main opposition Congress party and highlighted government failures in handling the Covid-19 pandemic.

Congress complained to Twitter saying the document was fake, after which Twitter marked some of the posts as "manipulated media".

Delhi Police declined to comment.

Twitter has been battling with the Indian government since February after the technology ministry asked it to block content alleging Modi's administration was trying to silence criticism related to farmer protests in the country.

READ MORE: Twitter is silencing pro-Kashmir accounts, UK-based political groups say

Source: AFP