Union Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Wednesday said that a First Information Report registered against Twitter in connection with the assault of an elderly Muslim man was because the social media platform failed to comply with Centre’s new social media rules.

In the FIR lodged on Tuesday, the police in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad named “Twitter Inc” and “Twitter Communications India PVT”, along with journalists, news website The Wire and Congress leaders, alleging that the accused did not verify their tweets on the incident and thereby gave a “communal angle” to it. The FIR said the tweets posted by the accused were shared on a largescale and they hinted at a “criminal conspiracy”.

“What happened in UP [Uttar Pradesh] was illustrative of Twitter’s arbitrariness in fighting fake news,” Prasad said in a series of tweets on Wednesday. “While Twitter has been over enthusiastic about its fact checking mechanism, it’s failure to act in multiple cases like UP is perplexing & indicates its inconsistency in fighting misinformation.”

In May, the Indian government had criticised Twitter’s decision to label a tweet by Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Sambit Patra as “manipulated media”. Twitter has clarified that it applies its “manipulated media” tag to posts “that include media (videos, audio, and images) that have been deceptively altered or fabricated”.

In his tweets on Wednesday, Prasad also said that Twitter has chosen “the path of deliberate defiance” of the Centre’s new social media rules that came into effect on May 26. “Twitter was given multiple opportunities to comply with the same, however it has deliberately chosen the path of non compliance,” he said.

His comments came amid reports that Twitter had lost its “intermediary status” due to non-compliance of the rules.

Reporting on the development, ANI said that it implies Twitter will now be treated as a “publisher” of alleged unlawful content on its platform and be liable for punishment under any law, including the IT Act. The news agency, however, did not quote any government official on this. Even Prasad did not directly confirm or deny if Twitter had indeed lost its intermediary status.

“There are numerous queries arising as to whether Twitter is entitled to safe harbour provision,” he tweeted. “However, the simple fact of the matter is that Twitter has failed to comply with the intermediary guidelines that came into effect from the 26th of May.”

Centre vs Twitter on IT rules

The new information technology rules are a sweeping set of regulations which were announced in February and became effective in May framed to regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content, virtually bringing them, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.

The rules require these platforms to appoint chief compliance officers, in order to make sure the rules are followed, nodal officers, to coordinate with law enforcement agencies, and grievance officers. It also requires social media platforms with over 50 lakh users to help in identifying the “originator” of messages upon the government’s request.

On June 5, the Centre had sent a final notice to Twitter to comply with the rules. It asked the company to appoint India-based nodal officers, warning that the failure to do so will lead to “unintended consequences”.

Twitter has said it was “making every effort” to comply with the new rules. However, earlier it had criticised the regulations and said it was concerned about the “potential threat” to freedom of expression. On Tuesday, Twitter said that it had appointed an interim chief compliance officer in compliance with the new information technology rules and said that the details will be shared with the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology soon.

However, Prasad’s comments on Wednesday indicated that the social media company had not complied with the rules. “Twitter fails to address the grievances of users by refusing to set up process as mandated by the law of the land,” the Union minister, who also handles the law portfolio, said in one of his tweets.

He questioned Twitter on not complying with the rules, drawing a comparison with Indian companies doing business in the United States who “voluntarily follow the local laws”.

“If any foreign entity believes that they can portray itself as the flag bearer of free speech in India to excuse itself from complying with the law of the land, such attempts are misplaced,” Prasad tweeted.

IT rules cannot revoke intermediary status, say experts

Experts dealing with laws related to the internet, however, suggest that the new rules do not contain any power or process for grant or revocation of an intermediary status of social media platforms or other websites.

In a series of tweets on Wednesday, the Internet Freedom Foundation said that the concerns about the “intermediary status” arise from Rule 7 of the new regulations which states that Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 will not be applicable to intermediaries who fail to comply with the rules.

The Section 79, in turn, mandates that intermediaries, like Twitter, are immune from liability for punishment if they comply with requests from courts and public authorities to take down posts from users.

The Internet rights body also pointed out that the new IT rules have been challenged in the courts. Further, even if the rules are upheld as legal and constitutional, it will be up to the courts, and not the government, to decide whether companies like Twitter are intermediaries, the Internet Freedom Foundation said.

“There is no immediate penalty which flows from non-compliance beyond loss of immunity determined by Courts on evidence and legal submissions,” it said in a tweet.