On Monday, the Union government accused social networking service Twitter of being too slow in responding to requests to delete content and accounts that have the potential to cause communal tension, reported the Hindu. The Union government has also asked the website to pass on telephone numbers and other personal user data that could help track down owners of accounts that the authorities allege are breaking the law.
This move comes in the wake of social media rumors spreading across India, sometimes even leading to mob violence. Since January 2017, for instance, 33 people have been lynched across India because of social media rumours that criminals on the prowl were seeking to abduct children and sell their organs.
But will the knee-jerk reaction of asking a microblogging site to hand over the personal data of its users to the government be effective? For one, India does not yet have a legal framework for data protection. A draft bill exists but is yet to be voted into law. The decision to ask Twitter for personal data without public consultations on how this information will be fitted into the framework of law might end up having little effect on communal rumour-mongering and only serve to compromise individual privacy.
Moreover, Twitter has itself pointed out that simply handing over personal data to the government without any checks would be against the norms of free speech. India already has a long record of misusing hate speech laws for partisan political ends. In 2017, for instance, the Madhya Pradesh police allegedly framed 15 men for sedition, claiming they had celebrated a victory of the Pakistan cricket team. Later that year, an 18-year old man was arrested for criticising the Union government. In September, a defence analyst was arrested in Odisha for making comments about the state’s temples that some deemed derogatory.
Even as the government asks social media networks to control provocative messages, it seems to have done little to act on the problem itself, given its vast powers to do so. Communal hate speech, even calls for genocide, have seen little action from the administration even when the identity of the perpetrator is known. The government needs to start fixing the problem itself.