The Ministry of Electronics, Information and Technology told the Parliament on Monday that it took down 3,635 social media pages/accounts in 2019 for violating the Information Technology Act.
In a response to an unstarred question by Congress MP Ravneet Singh Bittu about the ministry’s regulation of social media, the ministry said that 1,385 pages were blocked in 2017 and 2,799 were blocked in 2018.
“With a borderless cyberspace coupled with the possibility of instant communication and anonymity, the potential for misuse of cyberspace and social media platforms for criminal activities is a global issue,” the ministry said in its response.
“In line with increase of usage of Internet as also the growth of social media platforms, there are increasing number of incidents of reporting of such content having potential to incite violence and hatred. Government has a well-defined system of reporting and blocking for public access within the framework of section 69A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 and the Rules thereunder,” it added.
The Ministry’s response comes in the wake of the Facebook controversy in August this year, wherein news reports alleged that the social media company was prejudicial while implementing its hate-speech policy, giving leeway to the members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Opposition came down heavily on the government as more reports surfaced regarding the conduct of Facebook India’s public policy head, Ankhi Das, wherein she claimed credit for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in the elections. Facebook India managing director Ajit Mohan was also quizzed by the IT parliamentary panel, barely days after IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote to CEO Mark Zuckerberg alleging Facebook allowed anti-Modi posts.
“There were media reports that Facebook’s hate-speech rules collide with Indian politics, thereby trying to tarnish the image of those who indulge in constructive criticism of policies. Minister for Electronics & Information Technology has written to CEO, Facebook about alleged bias of the platform and to ensure integrity and neutrality of Facebook and the people working for Facebook. Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology has already taken up the matter with Facebook,” the government said in another response.
Social media companies, it added in its first response, are considered intermediaries under the IT Act, 2000. They are required to “observe due diligence while discharging their duties and have to inform the users of computer resources not to host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, update or share any information that is, inter alia, grossly harmful, harassing, defamatory, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, or otherwise unlawful in any manner”.
They are also expected to remove any unlawful content under Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India as and when brought to their knowledge either through a court order or through a notice by the government or its agency.
The ministry, in response to a third question, said that the 59 Chinese-origin applications that were banned in the first round of blocks after tensions broke out along the Line of Actual Control with China were taken down in accordance with a Ministry of Home Affairs request. Subsequently, the ministry banned 47, and then 118 more applications, including the popular game PUBG and video-sharing platform TikTok.
“The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has blocked 224 mobile apps under the provisions of section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India and security of State. Blocking of such Apps has been done on national security concerns and thus linkage with any country may not be disclosed in public domain,” the ministry said in response to a fourth question.
According to Internet Freedom Foundation trustee Apar Gupta, the government’s blocking process lacks transparency. “The blocking process in India is extremely opaque,” Gupta said. “As recently demonstrated by the blocking of several environmental websites, the owners of websites are not provided with even a proper notice and an opportunity for a hearing prior to blocking. This requires urgent reform and, while proper steps need to be taken to prevent hate speech from being circulated on social media, it should not be done like a form of censorship that is conducted with secrecy,” he added.