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India’s IT rules: Why the government is gunning for Twitter

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By Prasanto K Roy

Technology writer

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Last week, Twitter India’s managing director was summoned by police in Ghaziabad, a city near the capital Delhi.

He has since earned a temporary reprieve from court , protecting him from arrest, but the case is still open.

The trigger was a video – allegedly showing a hate crime – shared on the platform: a 72-year-old Muslim man was beaten up and his beard cut off. Many, including prominent journalists, shared the video.

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Police say religion was not a motive and that the attackers were unhappy about an amulet the Muslim man had sold them. They arrested six people for the attack.

They also registered a complaint, under serious criminal charges, against Twitter India, news website The Wire, three journalists and three politicians of the opposition Congress party for sharing the video with “an intention to provoke communal unrest”. All six are Muslim, although non-Muslims also shared the video.

It’s rare for social media company executives to be summoned over posts on their platforms. Like phone companies, these firms are “intermediaries” whom Indian law does not hold responsible for posts on their sites – if they comply with the law and take down content when legally required to.

But India’s federal government says Twitter could lose that intermediary protection for failing to comply with new IT rules released in February.

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Officially called the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, they stipulate that large social media firms must appoint three executives – one for compliance, another for addressing user grievances, and a third for round-the-clock co-ordination with law enforcement. All three must be full-time employees and Indian residents.

The ministry of information technology says two of the new officials Twitter appointed are not employees, that its listed office address is that of a law firm, and that it hasn’t given details about the third hire, the chief compliance officer, who is criminally liable for non-compliance.

The rules also require social media firms to remove content within 36 hours of a legal order, and use automated processes to take down objectionable content such as pornography.

On 21 June, Twitter restricted 50 tweets, most of them with the contentious video, in India. And the company’s India head offered to meet the police over the video, an offer they rejected. They sent another notice asking him to appear in person.

“The Indian government is making an example of Twitter, to send a strong message to all foreign companies,” journalist and digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa said. “It has China envy. It wants to exert more control over foreign players operating on the internet in India.”

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image captionIT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the rules are designed to prevent abuse of platforms

Losing “intermediary” status can make life very difficult for social media firms. Religious sentiment is easily hurt in India – for example by a cartoon about a cow, considered holy by Hindus – and could open the floodgates to thousands of complaints implicating the platform and its executives. The case against Twitter could be the first of many.

Twitter did not respond to a query about the compliance issue, barring a terse statement that an interim chief compliance officer had been retained, and that “Twitter continues to make every effort to comply with the new guidelines”.

Whodunit? Tracing the sender

Twitter is not the only company at odds with the government. Last month WhatsApp sued the government over the rules, which it says force it to violate user privacy. With more than 400 million Indian users, a fifth of its global customers, the Facebook-owned app is India’s largest messenger platform.

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WhatsApp is objecting especially to a rule that demands that it trace the originator of a message, which the firm says will force it to break encryption and read and store every message. Not so, government officials say: WhatsApp must find a way to trace the originator without breaking encryption. But even that would need WhatsApp “to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent” in a database, which would break encryption and undermine people’s right to privacy, the company said in a statement.

The rule for tracing messages would affect other encrypted platforms, such as the increasingly popular Signal and Apple’s iMessage. For now, though, the government’s attention is fixed on WhatsApp.

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image captionWhatsApp has over 400 million users in India, a fifth of its global user base

This rule was first drafted in 2019 in the wake of dozens of rumours forwarded on WhatsApp: about child abduction, cow slaughter and other news that turned out fake but resulted in lynchings. The government wants WhatsApp to assist investigations into fake news and other crimes, including terrorism. But giving up encryption to help solve crime is a Faustian bargain, privacy activists say.

The United Nations is worried too. The UN’s special rapporteurs expressed serious concern that India’s new IT rules could lead to human rights violations and suppress freedom of speech. “Intermediaries will over-comply with takedown requests to limit their liability,” they said in a letter.

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The letter also says that the new rules provide power to censor journalists. But even before these rules, journalists have faced censure and criminal charges.

As it happens, the rules do cover publishers of news in a separate, exhaustive section, administered by another ministry – information and broadcasting. The compliance burden is onerous, and includes grievance redressal and content takedown processes. The National Broadcasters Association has urged the government to exclude digital news from mainstream media houses from the ambit of the rules. The government has refused.

The intermediary rules have resulted in other lawsuits. Thirteen media outlets have challenged them, saying they sought to “usher in an era of surveillance and fear”. A lawyer in Delhi sued Twitter for non-compliance with the rules and in Chennai, singer and artist TM Krishna petitioned the court, saying the rules affect his rights as an artist by imposing a chilling effect on free speech and his right to privacy.

One of the first petitions against the rules was filed by lawyer Sanjay K Singh in March. Mr Singh told the BBC that the rules go against his constitutionally protected right to free speech. He points to a landmark ruling against a draconian IT rule, 66A, that made posting “offensive” comments online a crime.

The Supreme Court struck down 66A, and said that intermediaries should not be forced to evaluate thousands of demands to pull down content, but must act on lawful requests to remove specific content.

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“These new rules go against the letter and spirit of that ruling,” Mr Singh says. “It appears that what they really want to do is take down content critical of the government.” His case is still ongoing.

But she says Twitter should have complied fully and then challenged the rules from a stronger position. A legal challenge is required, she adds, given that social media firms are expected to proactively censor content based on automated rules and keywords, potentially taking down a large number of tweets.

“We’re coming across as a Big Brother state,” Ms Singhal said. “This constant monitoring and control is far more than what we have ever had.”

media captionLaw student Shreya Singhal: “It is a great victory”

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TWITTER

Elon Musk Says He’ll Pay $11 Billion in Taxes in 2021 But Twitter Wants ‘Proof’

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Elon Musk took to Twitter to clarify once and for all that he will be paying a whopping $11 billion as taxes this year.

If the number of times Elon Musk could count when someone has asked him to pay the full taxes, he would be a very rich..wait, never mind. The Tesla boss is rich beyond any private individual has been in history, reports said.

Musk has increasingly been facing criticism from many politicians and many others who insist he has not been paying taxes as compared to the profits his companies have been making. On Sunday, the SpaceX CEO took to Twitter to share that he will be paying a whopping $11 billion as taxes.

For those wondering, I will pay over $11 billion in taxes this year— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 20, 2021

But some of the questions did not stop. One person tweeted how they needed to see Musk’s tax returns while yet another asked how much percentage was that of his total income.

A few were, however scathing of the government who thought they will add that amount to their pockets rather than using it for some proper development.

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Wow that’s enough to give each person in the world almost $2 million but instead the government will just stick it in their pockets— greg (@greg16676935420) December 20, 2021

Why not $200 billion? Asking for a Senator— litquidity (@litcapital) December 20, 2021

Earlier this week, Democratic US Senator Elizabeth Warren has tweeted to say that Musk should pay taxes and stop “freeloading off everyone else” after Time magazine named him its “person of the year”.

In response, Musk shot four tweets in which he said that the senator reminded him of a friend’s angry mom who yelled at everybody. He tweeted, ““And if you opened your eyes for 2 seconds, you would realize I will pay more taxes than any American in history this year.” “Don’t spend it all at once … oh wait you did already.”

He added further, “You remind me of when I was a kid and my friend’s angry Mom would just randomly yell at everyone for no reason.”

Musk responded by saying that he “will pay more taxes than any American in history this year”. This Twitter exchange left netizens divided as even though many supported Warren and agreed that Musk should pay more taxes, others felt that he was already doing enough.

Musk’s Tesla is worth about $1 trillion. Over the last few weeks, he has sold nearly $14 billion worth of Tesla shares.

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The Tesla boss has been pushing for his colonize Mars agenda for years now, and has made it very clear in some occasions that he would rather spend the money on putting humanity on the red planet, than pay his taxes. “My plan,” the SpaceX founder tweeted about his fortune, “is to use the money to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness.”

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Twitter Admits Policy ‘Errors’ After Far-Right Abuse Its New Rules of Posting Pictures

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Twitter’s new picture permission policy was aimed at combating online abuse, but US activists and researchers said Friday that far-right backers have employed it to protect themselves from scrutiny and to harass opponents.

Even the social network admitted the rollout of the rules, which say anyone can ask Twitter to take down images of themselves posted without their consent, was marred by malicious reports and its teams’ own errors.

It was just the kind of trouble anti-racism advocates worried was coming after the policy was announced this week.

Their concerns were quickly validated, with anti-extremism researcher Kristofer Goldsmith tweeting a screenshot of a far-right call-to-action circulating on Telegram: “Due to the new privacy policy at Twitter, things now unexpectedly work more in our favor.”

“Anyone with a Twitter account should be reporting doxxing posts from the following accounts,” the message said, with a list of dozens of Twitter handles.

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Gwen Snyder, an organizer and researcher in Philadelphia, said her account was blocked this week after a report to Twitter about a series of 2019 photos she said showed a local political candidate at a march organized by extreme-right group Proud Boys.

Rather than go through an appeal with Twitter she opted to delete the images and alert others to what was happening.

“Twitter moving to eliminate (my) work from their platform is incredibly dangerous and is going to enable and embolden fascists,” she told AFP.

In announcing the privacy policy on Tuesday, Twitter noted that “sharing personal media, such as images or videos, can potentially violate a person’s privacy, and may lead to emotional or physical harm.”

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But the rules don’t apply to “public figures or individuals when media and accompanying Tweets are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse.”

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By Friday, Twitter noted the roll out had been rough: “We became aware of a significant amount of coordinated and malicious reports, and unfortunately, our enforcement teams made several errors.”

“We’ve corrected those errors and are undergoing an internal review to make certain that this policy is used as intended,” the firm added.

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Jack Dorsey Post Twitter Is Chasing His Crypto, Fintech Dream

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At a packed Miami conference in June, Jack Dorsey, mused in front of thousands of attendees about where his real passion lay: “If I weren’t at Square or Twitter, I’d be working on Bitcoin.”

On Monday, Dorsey made good on one part of that, announcing he would leave Twitter for the second time, handing the CEO position to a 10-year veteran at the firm. The 45-year-old entrepreneur, who is often described as an enigma with varied interests from meditation to yoga to fashion design, plans to pursue his passion which include focusing on running Square and doing more philanthropic work, according to a source familiar with his plan.

Well before the surprise news, Dorsey had laid the groundwork for his next chapter, seeding both companies with cryptocurrency-related projects.

Underlying Dorsey’s broader vision is the principle of “decentralisation,” or the idea that technology and finance should not be concentrated among a handful of gatekeepers, as it is now, but should, instead, be steered by the hands of the many, either people or entities.

The concept has played out at Square, which has built a division devoted to working on projects and awarding grants with the aim of growing Bitcoin’s popularity globally. Bitcoin price in India stood at Rs. 44.52 lakh as of 12:50pm IST on December 1.

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Dorsey has been a longtime proponent of Bitcoin, and the appeal is that the cryptocurrency will allow for private and secure transactions with the value of Bitcoin unrelated to any government.

The idea has also underpinned new projects at Twitter, where Dorsey tapped a top lieutenant – and now the company’s new CEO Parag Agrawal – to oversee a team that is attempting to construct a decentralised social media protocol, which will allow different social platforms to connect with one another, similar to the way email providers operate.

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The project called Bluesky will aim to allow users control over the types of content they see online, removing the “burden” on companies like Twitter to enforce a global policy to fight abuse or misleading information, Dorsey said in 2019 when he announced Bluesky.

Bitcoin has also figured prominently at both of his companies. Square became one of the first public companies to own Bitcoin assets on its balance sheet, having invested $220 million (roughly Rs. 1,650 crore) in the cryptocurrency.

In August, Square created a new business unit called TBD to focus on Bitcoin. The company is also planning to build a hardware wallet for Bitcoin, a Bitcoin mining system, as well as a decentralised Bitcoin exchange.

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Twitter allows users to tip their favourite content creators with Bitcoin and has been testing integrations with non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a type of digital asset that allows people to collect unique digital art.

Analysts see the transition as a positive signal for Square, the fintech platform he co-founded in 2009. Square’s core Cash App, after a bull run in its share in 2020, has experienced slower growth in the most recent quarter. It is also trying to digest the $29 billion (roughly Rs. 2,17,240 crore) acquisition of Buy Now Pay Later provider Afterpay, its largest acquisition ever.

But these ambitions will not pay off until years from now, analysts cautioned.

“The blockchain platform they’re trying to develop is great but also fraught with technical challenges and difficult to scale for consumers. I think he’ll focus more on Square and crypto will be part of that,” said Christopher Brendler, an analyst at DA Davidson.

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© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Interested in cryptocurrency? We discuss all things crypto with WazirX CEO Nischal Shetty and WeekendInvesting founder Alok Jain on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

Cryptocurrency is an unregulated digital currency, not a legal tender and subject to market risks. The information provided in the article is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, trading advice or any other advice or recommendation of any sort offered or endorsed by NDTV. NDTV shall not be responsible for any loss arising from any investment based on any perceived recommendation, forecast or any other information contained in the article.

(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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