New Delhi: The row over Twitter's handling of certain messages escalated into an all-out war of words on Thursday, with the government saying the messaging platform was levelling baseless and false allegations to defame India and dictating terms to the world's largest democracy.
It started with Twitter calling the visit by Delhi Police to its offices a form of "intimidation" — a statement which met with vociferous protests from both the government and the Delhi Police.
While the government called it "totally baseless, false and an attempt to defame India", Delhi Police said the statement was "mendacious" and designed to impede a lawful inquiry.
Twitter had marked several tweets by ruling BJP leaders on an alleged strategy document of Opposition to target the government over COVID as containing 'manipulated media', which prompted the police to visit its offices late on Monday.
Twitter said it was committed to India as a vital market, but criticised the new IT rules and regulations that it said "inhibit free, open public conversation."
It went on to express concern over the safety of its employees in India and said it will continue to be strictly guided by principles of transparency and protecting freedom of expression.
Within hours, the Delhi Police issued a strongly-worded statement saying Twitter was purporting to be both investigating and adjudicating authority and had "taken upon itself, in the garb of terms of service, to adjudicate the truth or otherwise of documents in public space".
The reference being of the alleged 'toolkit' — the one that Twitter, which uses fact-checking websites, tagged as 'manipulated media'. The Delhi Police is investigating it on a complaint by Congress of the 'toolkit' being fake.
Delhi Police said it had gone to the Twitter office to ask its India head to join the investigation as the messaging platform seemed to have information based on which it declared the 'toolkit' manipulated media.
Shortly thereafter, the Ministry of Electronics and IT issued a statement saying India has a glorious tradition of free speech and democratic practices dating back centuries.
"Twitter's statement is an attempt to dictate its terms to the world's largest democracy. Through its actions and deliberate defiance, Twitter seeks to undermine India's legal system," it asserted.
Stating that Twitter has refused to comply with new digital rules requiring identification of the originator of a flagged message and appointing grievance redressal officers, the ministry said the purported commitment of the US-based firm to India not only sounds hallow but completely self-serving.
"Twitter needs to stop beating around the bush and comply with the laws of the land," the ministry said without saying what action it could take in case non-compliance continued.
It went on to highlight previously raised concerns around certain locations in Ladakh being shown as part of China, alleged reluctance to block content around a "genocide plan" during farmers' protest, rampant proliferation of fake and harmful content against India, and no action being taken on a type of coronavirus being called the Indian variant.
The government, the statement said, "condemns the unfortunate statement issued by Twitter as totally baseless, false and attempt to defame India to hide their own follies."
"Twitter has a large user base in India, it earns significant revenue from its Indian operations but is also the most reluctant to appoint an India-based grievance redressal officer and mechanism, chief compliance officer and nodal officer to whom its own users can complain when they are subjected to offensive tweets," it said.
It went on to say that Twitter employees are safe in India and there is no threat to their personal safety and security.
In its first official statement after the Delhi Police visited the company's offices in Delhi and Gurugram to serve notice to its country managing director about the investigation into the 'manipulated media' tag, Twitter said it will continue to be strictly guided by principles of transparency and protecting freedom of expression.
The company said it will "strive" to comply with applicable law in India to keep its service available in the country but will "advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation."
"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," Twitter said in a statement.
"We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT rules."
In the new digital rules, social media companies like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have been asked to identify within 36 hours the originator of a flagged message as well as conduct additional due diligence, including the appointment of a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person and resident grievance officer.
"We will continue our constructive dialogue with the Indian government and believe it is critical to adopt a collaborative approach. It is the collective responsibility of elected officials, industry and civil society to safeguard the interests of the public," Twitter said.
According to Twitter, the company is particularly concerned about the requirement to make an individual (the compliance officer) criminally liable for content on the platform, the requirements for proactive monitoring, and the blanket authority to seek information about its users.
This, it said, represents dangerous overreach that is inconsistent with open, democratic principles.
Twitter further said it continues to accept grievances from users and law enforcement via its existing grievance redressal channel.
Meanwhile, homegrown microblogging platform Koo on Thursday said it has provided "necessary details" on compliance as sought by the IT Ministry, after the new social media rules came into effect.
The ministry had on Wednesday asked all large social media companies to immediately report on status of compliance with the new digital rules, and offer details of grievance redressal officer, chief compliance officer and nodal officer to whom users can submit complaints.
"We have a robust community guidelines framework which has been existent for a while now," Aprameya Radhakrishna, co-founder of Koo, told PTI.