Revealed: RTI Request uncovers MeitY letters to Twitter asking to remove the ‘manipulated media’ tag

tl;dr

Reports emerged last month that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had issued a letter to Twitter asking it to remove a ‘Manipulated Media’ tag that was affixed on certain tweets of prominent political leaders carrying an alleged ‘toolkit’. We filed RTIs to find out what was stated in the letter, and today (June 17, 2021) we were provided copies of two letters from MeitY to Twitter dated May 21 and 25, 2021. The letters do not cite any provision of law, but have asked Twitter to refrain from implementing its policy and process of affixing the ‘Manipulated Media’ tag on tweets.

Background

According to media reports, we learned that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has issued a letter to Twitter seeking removal of the “Manipulated Media” tag affixed by Twitter on certain tweets made by Indian political leaders. In those tweets, the political leaders are attributing a ‘toolkit’ to a political party. The Ministry reportedly objected to the tagging because law enforcement agencies are investigating the veracity of the ‘toolkit’.

To ensure that speech over social media is not unreasonably curbed, we wrote to MeitY detailing our concerns. In the letter, we urged MeitY to publish true copies of these letters on the official website of MeitY, seek legal opinion from the Ministry of Law and Justice on this issue, and in the interim withdraw these letters.

At the same time, we filed two RTIs applications before the Department of Electronics and Information Technology at MeitY on May 21, 2021 and June 2, 2021, where we asked the following questions:

  1. whether any governmental authorities have been in contact with Twitter for any tweets related to the alleged Congress Toolkit;
  2. whether any governmental authorities have issued any directions to Twitter to remove the manipulated media tag on tweets related to the alleged Congress Toolkit; and
  3. what is the provision of law under which the directions for removing the manipulated media tag from the tweets related to the alleged Congress Toolkit were issued

We had also requested to be provided with copies of any communication(s) that may have been sent to Twitter by MeitY. We received a reply to our RTI request today, i.e. June 17, 2021, confirming that MeitY did indeed issue letters to Twitter asking Twitter to remove the ‘Manipulated Media’ tag. The reply from MeitY contained two letters issued by the MeitY to Twitter requesting certain action on part of Twitter in relation to its ‘manipulated media’ tags.

The RTI reply also stated that under the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961 MeitY is the administrator of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and deals with all matters relating to the internet including grievances and clarifications from intermediaries - this is not however specifically stated in the Allocation of Business Rules. The Supreme Court in a long line of decisions has interpreted the Allocation of Business Rules as being administrative in nature, which only deal with role division between various government ministries and departments, and no powers actually arise under such rules.

MeitY’s response to the RTIs has provided the letters MeitY issued to Twitter

We are grateful to MeitY for actually disclosing the letters it has issued to Twitter. This is a crucial step towards promoting transparency and accountability, which is absolutely essential for fostering greater public trust in our institutions. However, we are concerned about the content of the two letters.

The first letter issued by MeitY dated May 21, 2021 to Twitter (the May 21 Letter), noted that Twitter had tagged certain tweets as ‘manipulated media’. MeitY claimed that the ‘toolkit’ referred to in the tweets in question was under investigation by law enforcement agencies, and alleged that such tagging by Twitter was “pre-judged, prejudiced and a deliberate attempt to colour the investigation” by the law enforcement agency. MeitY, accordingly, asked Twitter to remove the ‘Manipulated Media’ tag as applied to certain tweets.

While we do not have a copy of Twitter’s response to the May 21 Letter, it appears that Twitter replied to the May 21 Letter, outlining its policy regarding synthetic and manipulated media. References are made to this response in MeitY’s second letter dated May 25, 2021 to Twitter (the May 25 Letter).

In the May 25 Letter, MeitY acknowledged Twitter’s policies and claimed that such policies were opaque and violated the principles of natural justice, since the users whose tweets have been tagged as ‘manipulated media’ did not receive an opportunity to be heard before the tagging. MeitY also reiterated that the tagging of the tweets carrying the alleged toolkit as ‘manipulated media’ would colour ongoing investigations. This time, however, MeitY requested Twitter to entirely stop the practice of tagging tweets as ‘manipulated media’, at least during the pendency of this particular investigation.

No provision of law was cited by MeitY

The two letters did not cite any provision under which such requests were made. We reiterate the concern we have raised previously that such letters are not anchored in any provision of law. Nothing in the IT Act, 2000 or the Rules made thereunder empowers MeitY to request Twitter to take down such tags, or to entirely stop affixing such tags to posts. The law also does not prohibit Twitter from affixing such tags.

Moreover, the actions of Twitter align with Twitter’s ‘Synthetic and Manipulated Media Policy’. This policy permits Twitter to affix a tag if it finds that the content has been substantially edited or if the content is shared deceptively. The fact that a law enforcement agency is investigating the veracity of the toolkit referred to in the tweets does not prevent Twitter from tagging content on its platform. It is not clear how such tagging affects any independent ongoing investigation, but in the event that such tagging affects any ongoing investigation, it is the law enforcement agency and not the Ministry that should take steps.

We previously understood that MeitY had only asked Twitter to remove the ‘Manipulated Media’ tag from certain tweets, but the RTI response has now revealed that MeitY has gone one step further in the May 25 Letter and asked Twitter to put their entire ‘Synthetic and Manipulated Media Policy’ on hold, at least until the investigation process is completed. Such requests have come without any legal basis or legal authority. In its letters to Twitter or in the RTI response to us, MeitY has not cited or made reference to any provision of law from which the authority to prevent or restrain an intermediary from fighting disinformation is derived. The Allocation of Business Rules only list the matters in respect of which the Ministry is responsible. It does not grant the power to impose restrictions on private companies in the absence of authorising legal provisions.

Additionally, MeitY’s powers under the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the rules framed thereunder are limited to ordering the take down of unlawful content and other such similar powers. While it is true that Twitter’s content regulation policies need to be much more transparent and consistently applied, including the policy regarding labelling tweets as ‘Manipulated Media’, MeitY does not have the power to tell social media platforms how to govern their platforms in this specific manner, particularly as such companies have a statutory requirement to take measures to curb fake news and disinformation from being spread on their platforms.

This is of grave concern, especially as MeitY pushes through the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 with the stated aim of fighting and curbing disinformation and fake news on social media platforms. At the same time, MeitY is issuing correspondence to Twitter to stop its disinformation fighting processes. This appears to be doublespeak and will erode public trust in the government’s commitment to fighting fake news and disinformation.

Important Documents

  1. MeitY’s letter dated May 21, 2021 asking Twitter to remove the ‘manipulated media’ tag from certain (link)
  2. MeitY’s letter dated May 25, 2021 asking Twitter to stop the process of tagging tweets as manipulated media altogether (link)
  3. IFF’s letter dated May 22, 2021 asking MEITY to withdraw the letters (link)
  4. Previous blogpost dated 22 May 2021 titled “MEITY has no legal basis to ask social media platforms to remove content in middle of India's COVID crisis!” (link)