Police in India stormed the New Delhi Twitter office last month and among them were officers from a special cell that usually investigates crimes such as terrorism.
The reason for the raid: a decision by the microblogging site to describe a tweet by the spokesman for the country’s ruling party as “manipulated media”.
The incident is considered to be the focal point of increasingly strained relationships between US social media companies and government agencies in the second largest internet market.
The raid took place before new IT rules for social media companies came into force at the end of May. The rules were introduced in February and raised concerns about privacy and data control.
Under the new framework, large social media companies – both overseas and local – must appoint compliance executives who coordinate with law enforcement, put in place mechanisms to address complaints, and remove content within 36 hours of receiving a legal order get so.
You must also disclose the “primary information provider” if the authorities request it.
“Initially, social media platforms will have a hard time complying with the new IT rules,” says Ashok Kadsur, co-founder of SignDesk, an IT company in Bengaluru.
“These rules will require the social media giants to devote more resources to regional operations and create an efficient system to streamline the massive number of complaints that will undoubtedly come their way.”
The stakes are extremely high. With a large and young population, India is a lucrative market for global social media companies that have invested heavily in the country.
According to figures released by DataReportal and Hootsuite, the country had about 448 million social media users as of January this year, up 21 percent on an annualized basis.
Capturing market share in India is also vital for companies like Google and Facebook as growth hits plateaus in the US and Europe.
“In the past, social media giants could have defended themselves against these new rules,” says Kadsur.
“As the markets in Europe and the USA are slowly becoming saturated, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are now laying all the eggs in India’s basket.”
The problems facing social media companies in India are part of a much broader battle between big tech companies and government agencies in other parts of the world.
A global debate is raging about ways to enforce regulatory controls without endangering privacy and freedom of expression in democratic countries.
The government cited the need to maintain “law and order and national security” as a key factor behind the new rules.
However, companies fear that the regulations could affect data protection and restrict freedom of expression.
WhatsApp, owned by Facebook – with 400 million users in India, its largest market – has filed a lawsuit against the Modi government.
Pressure on these companies is mounting, however, and Twitter has already come under fire from the government for its late compliance.
The government told Twitter this month that it would be given one last chance to comply or face “unintended consequences,” Reuters reported, citing an official letter.
With around 17.5 million users, India has the third largest Twitter user base worldwide after the USA and Japan.
Twitter told The National that it “remains deeply connected in India” and has assured the government that it is “making every effort to adhere to the new guidelines and that an overview of our progress has been duly shared”.
The company announces that it will continue its “constructive dialogue with the Indian government”.
Industry insiders say that social media companies will have to follow suit at some point.
“India is a very important market for these companies,” says Mehar Gulati, founder of the PR and social media agency Scarlet Relations.
“Companies will have no choice but to comply with the regulations if they want to continue operations.”
However, legal experts say the Indian government’s rules conflict with the privacy policies of social media companies.
“This is the main problem between government and corporations, as it is argued that privacy is being violated,” said Ashutosh Shekhar Paarcha, a Supreme Court attorney.
“The underlying problem is that [some of] These companies have already bragged their users about their privacy … and how they offer end-to-end encryption. “
Social media platforms will initially have a hard time complying with the new IT rules
Ashok Kadsur, co-founder of SignDesk
Companies fear a sharp drop in users if they stick to the new rules, he says.
WhatsApp has long assured users that its app is “end-to-end encrypted,” which means that they can communicate without their messages being saved or visible to others.
This is a major draw for those who are increasingly concerned about privacy.
However, the messaging app has “not a good case” [in court]”And the best option might be” talking to the government behind the door to try to reach consensus, “says Paarcha.
WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook said last month that it intends to “comply with IT rules and continue to discuss some of the issues that require more engagement with the government.
In accordance with IT rules, we are working on implementing operational processes and improving efficiency. “
The social media company emphasized that it is “still committed to the ability of people to express themselves freely and securely on our platform”.
There has been some fundamental tension in the past between the Government of India and social media companies over the content posted on these platforms.
Last month, they were ordered to cut posts criticizing the Indian government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic amid a deadly second wave of infections. The companies complied with the request on the Indian market.
In another incident in February, Twitter refused to block some accounts criticizing India’s controversial agricultural reforms.
If social media companies don’t adhere to the new rules, however, “the likely consequences could range from mere fines to a ban in India,” says Paarcha.
Local employees are also at risk of jail time if their companies fail to adhere to the new code.
The government has already proven that it is ready to take tough measures, says Paarcha. The Chinese video sharing app TikTok, which was hugely popular in India, was banned last year amid border tensions with China.
Industry experts say the best course of action for India’s social media company is to press the Modi government to relax the rules.
“It is important to reach a mutual agreement that will benefit the government … [and is also] in the public interest, ”says Husain Habib, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Hats-Off Digital, a marketing agency for digital media.
“If it’s a fair deal for both of you; the companies themselves will adhere to the regulations imposed. “
However, the problem is complex and a quick fix is unlikely.
While the authorities are “just doing their job,” they are also depriving users of their privacy and trying to dictate terms and conditions in the world’s largest democracy, says Habib.