The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology confirmed on 28th June that the micro-blogging platform Twitter had lost its intermediary status and it can no longer avail the legal protection provided to the Internet Intermediaries under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 as it has failed to comply with the new IT Rules, 2021. Section 79 of the Act states that an intermediary shall not be liable for any third-party information or communication link made available or hosted by him, thus providing Safe Harbour Protection. This means that sites like Twitter will not be held liable if the third parties misuse the platform.
The new IT rules which came into effect on 26th May to regulate the content of the top social media platforms like Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter made it mandatory for the company to appoint a resident grievance officer, a nodal contact person, and a chief compliance officer based in the country to address the complaints from the users. A week after the new regulations were implemented, Twitter announced Dharmendra Chatur as the interim grievance redressal officer. It said that it was working on finalizing permanent appointments for the post of nodal officer, chief compliance officer, and resident grievance officer, following the rules made mandatory by the new rules. While most of the significant social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, and LinkedIn, complied over the following week from the announcement by displaying on their websites the names of the appointed members, Twitter did not release any information to this effect initially.
Union IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad justified removing Twitter’s legal protection in India by stating that they had given three months to every social media platform to abide by the new rule. While all other platforms followed the rules, Twitter did not comply with them. According to Rule 7 of the IT guideline, if the company does not follow the rules, you lose the intermediary status under Section 79. You become liable to other laws, including the Indian Penal Code.
What is the protection under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act?
Section 79 of the Act states that any company will not be held liable for any third-party information or data available or hosted on its platform. This protection shall be applicable if the said company does not initiate the transmission of the message in question, select the receiver of the transmitted message, and does not try to modify the information contained in the transmission. As long as the platform acts only as the messenger carrying the information from one point to another without changing the content, it will be safe from any legal action brought upon them.
What is happening now?
Ravi Shankar Prasad, on his account on Koo, which is considered to be the Indian version of Twitter, stated that there had been a lot of queries related to whether Twitter is entitled to the safe harbour provision or not, and the simple fact is that Twitter failed to comply with the intermediary guidelines that came into effect from 26th May even though it was given multiple opportunities to comply with the same. It deliberately chose the path of non-compliance. He justified his actions by stating the Intermediary Guidelines were notified because in a country like India, “even a small spark can cause fire”. He further added that Twitter, which portrays itself as the flag beater of free speech, chose non-compliance when it comes to the guidelines.
Meanwhile, Dharmendra, the resident grievance officer, resigned from Twitter on 27th June. According to the company's website, his responsibilities were taken up by San Francisco-based Jeremy Kessel, the company’s senior director of global legal policy. Following that, Twitter advertised vacancies for all three positions for India on its website.
Impact on Twitter
Since Twitter is no longer protected under Section 79, it opens up the platform to all the possibilities of legal actions against them. This means that if a person uploads any content on Twitter that depicts violence or violates the law, then not only will the person be held liable, but Twitter will be held equally liable for the content as it no longer has any protection. The company has already started to face the consequence of losing such immunity as a case has been filed against Twitter regarding the assault of an elderly Muslim man on 5th June. The man claimed that a group of people assaulted him and forced him to chant “Jai Shri Ram”. Soon after, this claim was shared by journalists and activists all over Twitter. Following this incident, the UP Police filed an FIR against the people who were found sharing the claim regarding the communal angle and Twitter on which the claims were shared. Twitter was also accused of removing the tweets after the authorities claimed they informed the company about the posts.
With the liability protection lost, Twitter executives in India can face several criminal charges over any form of objectionable content on the platform. Indian police have already filed at least five cases against Twitter.