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A major battle over free speech on social media is playing out in India during the pandemic

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As the coronavirus pandemic rages in India, claiming thousands of lives, many Indians are turning to social media to demand that the government handle the public health crisis better. And now, the government is silencing these critics in its latest threat to the future of free speech on the internet in the world’s second-most populous country.

In recent weeks, the Indian government has requested that companies like Twitter take down content that it says contains misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. But critics say that India’s political leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using the premise of misinformation to overreach and suppress criticism of the administration’s handling of the pandemic.

A similar debate has also played out in the US around how companies like Twitter and Facebook should moderate harmful speech on their platforms, particularly when that speech comes from world leaders. But the issue has taken on an increased intensity in India, where the government is more aggressively and directly pressuring tech companies to block content it takes issue with.

“Internet companies are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Anupam Chander, a law professor at Georgetown University who focuses on the regulation of international speech online. “They face a government that is accusing them of essentially abetting a violation of law. At the same time, there are huge free expression concerns here.”

India is the world’s biggest democracy and has a history of robust political debate. Its constitution protects people’s rights to freedom of speech and expression — with some exceptions including for content it deems defamatory.

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But under the Modi administration of the past several years, the country has expanded its internet regulation laws, giving it more power to censor and surveil its citizens online. The government has several levers to pressure US-based tech companies into compliance: It could arrest Facebook and Twitter staff in India if their employers don’t follow orders. Even further, India could yank Twitter or Facebook off the local internet in India entirely, as it recently did with TikTok and several major Chinese apps in June. And the government resorted to effectively shutting down the internet in Kashmir in February 2020 when it wanted to quiet political dissent in the region.

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Now, the tension between US social media companies and the Indian government has reached an all-time high because of the fierce debate around Modi’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And what happens next could determine whether Indians will continue to have the same kind of access to a relatively open social media environment or if the walls around what people are allowed to say online in India will close up even more. Some fear that the country may become more like China, where the government tightly controls its residents’ access to information and where US tech giants like Google and Facebook have tried — and failed — to operate successfully.

What happened with recent takedowns

In recent days, Twitter and Facebook have taken down or blocked political content that’s critical of the Indian government.

On Wednesday, Facebook confirmed that it temporarily blocked posts with a #ResignModi hashtag in India, but it later said it was a mistake because of content associated with the hashtag that violated its policies. Facebook has since restored access to the hashtag.

Facebook declined to comment on how many or what takedown requests it has received from the Indian government in recent weeks. A source familiar with the company said Facebook only took down a small portion of the total requests it received.

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In sharp contrast to Facebook, Twitter is more transparent and discloses takedown requests through an outside organization, Lumen. Twitter acknowledged that the Indian government asked it to take down several dozen tweets recently, which were about the Covid-19 pandemic in India, as first reported by Indian news site MediaNama.

Recode reviewed the more than 50 tweets that Twitter blocked or deleted at the request of the Indian government in recent weeks. While some could be considered misleading — including one viral image showing devastation in India supposedly related to the pandemic which Indian fact-checker AltNews reported to be outdated — it wasn’t clear what was misleading about several other posts, which appeared to be straightforward news and political commentary.

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One of the blocked tweets, for example, is a link to a Vice news article about a mass Hindu religious bathing ritual being held in the river Ganges during the most recent Covid-19 surge — which has been widely reported in other outlets as well. Another is a satirical cartoon showing a caricature of Modi making a speech over burning coffins, with the prime minister saying, “Have never seen such huge crowds at a rally.”

The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which issues takedown requests to social media companies on behalf of the Indian government, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Modi’s BJP Party also did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to Recode’s questions about how Twitter decides which posts to block or take down, a spokesperson for Twitter emailed Recode the following statement:

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When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only.

The company also said it notified account holders directly when they receive a legal order pertaining to their account.

Many free speech advocates are quick to accuse social media companies like Twitter of too easily giving in to pressure from the Indian government. In the past, the company has taken a more aggressive and public stance against the Modi administration — such as in February when it refused to block political activists and journalists who used Twitter to criticize the Indian government’s new agricultural reforms, which many farmers in India had been protesting for months.

Now, during the pandemic, companies like Twitter are again being tested about how much they’re willing to follow the Indian government’s orders — and run the risk of being shut down entirely if they disobey them.

“It’s easy for us to say Twitter shouldn’t do this. But the question is whether it wants to continue operating in the Indian market,” said Chander. “It’s a very complicated dance.”

One route US social media companies could take is to try to contest the government’s recent takedown requests in the Indian courts, which Chander said are relatively independent of Modi.

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The US government, which has a close relationship with India, could also pressure Modi’s administration to loosen its grip on social media. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the Indian government ordering social media companies to block posts critical of the government “certainly wouldn’t be aligned with our view of freedom of speech around the world.”

The White House has other diplomatic leverage it could use, like threatening to cut off trade agreements or other diplomatic relations between the two countries. For now, the White House is focused on the larger issue of vaccine distribution in India. This week, the administration announced — under increasing global pressure — that it will reverse course and export Covid-19 vaccine materials to the country. So far there’s been no public indication that the Biden administration is considering taking any diplomatic action around the country’s stance toward social media.

Regardless, it’s clear that there’s a growing battle between the Indian government and US social media companies. What happens next will be a sign of where the future of free speech in the country seems to be heading.

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Updating Special Ad Audiences for housing, employment, and credit advertisers

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On June 21, 2022 we announced an important settlement with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that will change the way we deliver housing ads to people residing in the US. Specifically, we are building into our ads system a method designed to make sure the audience that ends up seeing a housing ad more closely reflects the eligible targeted audience for that ad.

As part of this agreement, we will also be sunsetting Special Ad Audiences, a tool that lets advertisers expand their audiences for ad sets related to housing. We are choosing to sunset this for employment and credit ads as well. In 2019, in addition to eliminating certain targeting options for housing, employment and credit ads, we introduced Special Ad Audiences as an alternative to Lookalike Audiences. But the field of fairness in machine learning is a dynamic and evolving one, and Special Ad Audiences was an early way to address concerns. Now, our focus will move to new approaches to improve fairness, including the method previously announced.

What’s happening: We’re removing the ability to create Special Ad Audiences via Ads Manager beginning on August 25, 2022.

Beginning October 12th, 2022, we will pause any remaining ad sets that contain Special Ad Audiences. These ad sets may be restarted once advertisers have removed any and all Special Ad Audiences from those ad sets. We are providing a two month window between preventing new Special Ad Audiences and pausing existing Special Ad Audiences to enable advertisers the time to adjust budgets and strategies as needed.

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For more details, please visit our Newsroom post.

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Impact to Advertisers using Marketing API on September 13, 2022

For advertisers and partners using the API listed below, the blocking of new Special Ad Audience creation will present a breaking change on all versions. Beginning August 15, 2022, developers can start to implement the code changes, and will have until September 13, 2022, when the non-versioning change occurs and prior values are deprecated. Refer below to the list of impacted endpoints related to this deprecation:

For reading audience:

  • endpoint gr:get:AdAccount/customaudiences
  • field operation_status

For adset creation:

  • endpoint gr:post:AdAccount/adsets
  • field subtype

For adset editing:

  • endpoint gr:post:AdCampaign
  • field subtype

For custom audience creation:

  • endpoint gr:post:AdAccount/customaudiences
  • field subtype

For custom audience editing:

  • endpoint gr:post:CustomAudience

Please refer to the developer documentation for further details to support code implementation.

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Introducing an Update to the Data Protection Assessment

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Over the coming year, some apps with access to certain types of user data on our platforms will be required to complete the annual Data Protection Assessment. We have made a number of improvements to this process since our launch last year, when we introduced our first iteration of the assessment.

The updated Data Protection Assessment will include a new developer experience that is enhanced through streamlined communications, direct support, and clear status updates. Today, we’re sharing what you can expect from these new updates and how you can best prepare for completing this important privacy requirement if your app is within scope.

If your app is in scope for the Data Protection Assessment, and you’re an app admin, you’ll receive an email and a message in your app’s Alert Inbox when it’s time to complete the annual assessment. You and your team of experts will then have 60 calendar days to complete the assessment. We’ve built a new platform that enhances the user experience of completing the Data Protection Assessment. These updates to the platform are based on learnings over the past year from our partnership with the developer community. When completing the assessment, you can expect:

  • Streamlined communication: All communications and required actions will be through the My Apps page. You’ll be notified of pending communications requiring your response via your Alerts Inbox, email, and notifications in the My Apps page.

    Note: Other programs may still communicate with you through the App Contact Email.

  • Available support: Ability to engage with Meta teams via the Support tool to seek clarification on the questions within the Data Protection Assessment prior to submission and help with any requests for more info, or to resolve violations.

    Note: To access this feature, you will need to add the app and app admins to your Business Manager. Please refer to those links for step-by-step guides.

  • Clear status updates: Easy to understand status and timeline indicators throughout the process in the App Dashboard, App Settings, and My Apps page.
  • Straightforward reviewer follow-ups: Streamlined experience for any follow-ups from our reviewers, all via developers.facebook.com.

We’ve included a brief video that provides a walkthrough of the experience you’ll have with the Data Protection Assessment:

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The Data Protection Assessment elevates the importance of data security and helps gain the trust of the billions of people who use our products and services around the world. That’s why we are committed to providing a seamless experience for our partners as you complete this important privacy requirement.

Here is what you can do now to prepare for the assessment:

  1. Make sure you are reachable: Update your developer or business account contact email and notification settings.
  2. Review the questions in the Data Protection Assessment and engage with your teams on how best to answer these questions. You may have to enlist the help of your legal and information security points of contact to answer some parts of the assessment.
  3. Review Meta Platform Terms and our Developer Policies.

We know that when people choose to share their data, we’re able to work with the developer community to safely deliver rich and relevant experiences that create value for people and businesses. It’s a privilege we share when people grant us access to their data, and it’s imperative that we protect that data in order to maintain and build upon their trust. This is why the Data Protection Assessment focuses on data use, data sharing and data security.

Data privacy is challenging and complex, and we’re dedicated to continuously improving the processes to safeguard user privacy on our platform. Thank you for partnering with us as we continue to build a safer, more sustainable platform.

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Resources for Completing App Store Data Practice Questionnaires for Apps That Include the Facebook or Audience Network SDK

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Updated July 18: Developers and advertising partners may be required to share information on their app’s privacy practices in third party app stores, such as Google Play and the Apple App Store, including the functionality of SDKs provided by Meta. To help make it easier for you to complete these requirements, we have consolidated information that explains our data collection practices for the Facebook and Audience Network SDKs.

Facebook SDK

To provide functionality within the Facebook SDK, we may receive and process certain contact, location, identifier, and device information associated with Facebook users and their use of your application. The information we receive depends on what SDK features 3rd party applications use and we have structured the document below according to these features.

App Ads, Facebook Analytics, & App Events

Facebook App Events allow you to measure the performance of your app using Facebook Analytics, measure conversions associated with Facebook ads, and build audiences to acquire new users as well as re-engage existing users. There are a number of different ways your app can use app events to keep track of when people take specific actions such as installing your app or completing a purchase.

With Facebook SDK, there are app events that are automatically logged (app installs, app launches, and in-app purchases) and collected for Facebook Analytics unless you disable automatic event logging. Developers determine what events to send to Facebook from a list of standard events, or via a custom event.

When developers send Facebook custom events, these events could include data types outside of standard events. Developers control sending these events to Facebook either directly via application code or in Events Manager for codeless app events. Developers can review their code and Events Manager to determine which data types they are sending to Facebook. It’s the developer’s responsibility to ensure this is reflected in their application’s privacy policy.

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Advanced Matching

Developers may also send us additional user contact information in code, or via the Events Manager. Advanced matching functionality may use the following data, if sent:

  • email address, name, phone number, physical address (city, state or province, zip or postal code and country), gender, and date of birth.
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Facebook Login

There are two scenarios for applications that use Facebook Login via the Facebook SDK: Authenticated Sign Up or Sign In, and User Data Access via Permissions. For authentication, a unique, app-specific identifier tied to a user’s Facebook Account enables the user to sign in to your app. For Data Access, a user must explicitly grant your app permission to access data.

Note: Since Facebook Login is part of the Facebook SDK, we may collect other information referenced here when you use Facebook Login, depending on your settings.

Device Information

We may also receive and process the following information if your app is integrated with the Facebook SDK:

  • Device identifiers;
  • Device attributes, such as device model and screen dimensions, CPU core, storage size, SDK version, OS and app versions, and app package name; and
  • Networking information, such as the name of the mobile operator or ISP, language, time zone, and IP address.

Audience Network SDK

We may receive and process the following information when you use the Audience Network SDK to integrate Audience Network ads in your app:

  • Device identifiers;
  • Device attributes, such as device model and screen dimensions, operating system, mediation platform and SDK versions; and
  • Ad performance information, such as impressions, clicks, placement, and viewability.

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