The TLDR: An FIR filed in Ghaziabad aims to take down multiple targets with a single stone—including the fiercest critics of the government and, of course, Twitter. We look at the case and its implications for the social media platform’s future.
The trigger: It all started with a viral video of an elderly Muslim man from Ghaziabad. He claimed to have been beaten by a gang of young men—who cut his beard off and forced him to chant ‘Jai Siya Ram’. The case received wide coverage in the media—and sparked the usual outrage on Twitter, generating hundreds of tweets.
A new version of the facts: The next day—after the video went viral—Ghaziabad police claimed that there was no communal angle to this assault—and offered a new narrative.
According to this, the man —72-year-old Abdul Samad Saifi—was in the business of making taweez or amulets.
Saifi had given an amulet to one of his attackers, but it had brought him bad luck instead (a failed pregnancy in the family).
Enraged by this, he and his friends—who were a mix of Hindus and Muslims—beat up Saifi.
The police also made clear that Saifi did not mention any religion-related harassment while filing his complaint—and it is not in the FIR filed in his case.
And they claim that videos of the attack and of Saifi’s allegations were added later after “outside influence.” We presume this refers to the Samajwadi Party member who first shared the video.
But, but, but: The police’s account is contradicted by the victim's own family. Saifi’s son told Times of India:
“The entire police narrative is concocted. We have nothing to do with magic or ‘taveez’. We are Saifis and have been working as carpenters for generations. The police statement that Muslims were involved in the assault is false too. Beard is a Muslim identity and no Muslim will cut it off forcibly.”
The son also said that it was “the inspector who drafted the police complaint and filed an FIR. They did not write what we told them.” And The Wire has a copy of the original complaint written by Saifi which apparently confirms the details shared on his video.
But what does this have to do with Twitter?
Armed with this new version of the facts, the police then filed a new FIR against a select group of people. These include journalists Saba Naqvi, Rana Ayyub, Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair, The Wire and Congress leaders Shama Mohamed, Salman Nizami and Maskoor Usmani. Their crime: Tweeting the video without verifying facts and “giving a communal colour” to the incident. Also: The users did not delete their tweets even after the Ghaziabad police issued its ‘clarification’ denying any anti-Muslim angle. Therefore, the FIR claims:
“These tweets were done with the intent of disturbing peace in the society. The tweets not only created tension but also invoked fear among a particular community in Uttar Pradesh.”
FYI: The Wire claims it only tweeted out a link to its story on the assault:
“The Wire condemns the registration of a criminal case by the UP Police over a news story and tweet based on accurate and truthful reports, by many media organisations, of what the victim of the crime has himself said about the incident. The FIR is an attempt to criminalise the reporting of anything other than the official version of events.”
Also named in the FIR: Twitter, which is under the gun for refusing to remove their tweets or flag the video. An anonymous government source told The Telegraph, “Why did Twitter not flag the particular video linked to the case as ‘manipulated media’ even though thousands of people re-tweeted it?” Point to remember: Twitter recently slapped a ‘manipulated media’ tag on BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra’s tweet—which earned the company a visit from the Delhi police.
The charges: in the FIR cite Sections 153 (provocation to cause riot), 153A (promoting enmity between religious groups), 295A (acts intended to insult religious beliefs), 505 (mischief) and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code.
So what happens now?
The case has sparked fierce debate, a lot of bad reporting and therefore confusion over what will happen to Twitter (no one seems to be paying much attention to the journalists involved except The Press Club).
Loss of ‘intermediary’ status? Based on news agency ANI’s reporting, a number of media outlets (examples here and here) claimed that Twitter will no longer be considered an intermediary—but instead will be treated as a publisher responsible for all content on its platform. But as the Internet Freedom Foundation’s fact-check makes clear, the term ‘intermediary’ is a technical term defined by the Information Technology Act:
“‘Intermediary’, with respect to any particular electronic records, means any person who on behalf of another person receives, stores or transmits that record or provides any service with respect to that record and includes telecom service providers, network service providers, internet service providers, web-hosting service providers, search engines, online payment sites, online-auction sites, online-market places and cyber cafes.”
According to IFF and other legal experts, this designation cannot simply be revoked by the government—irrespective of the company’s actions. If at all, the courts will decide whether Twitter meets the definition as per the IT Act.
Loss of ‘safe harbour’? Everyone agrees that Twitter may now be vulnerable to criminal liability.
According to section 79 of the IT Act, “an intermediary shall not be liable for any third party information, data, or communication link made available or hosted” on its platform.
Basically, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc are treated like bookstore owners who cannot be responsible for content within books on their shelves.
But according to the new digital media rules, such immunity will only be offered to companies that comply with the IT laws.
Tweeting at Twitter (on Twitter), IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad insisted: “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.” (we explained the non-compliance issue here).
But, but, but: Prasad did not flat out state that Twitter has lost its ‘safe harbour ‘protection. And Twitter says it has not received any such notification from the government.
The legal debate: Some legal experts claim that there is no need for the government to serve notice on Twitter:
“Twitter, by not complying with the rules, lost its statutory immunity after the expiry of 90 days from February 25. Effectively, it now means that the honeymoon period of Twitter as a service provider under the Indian cyber law is over. They no longer have the suraksha kawach or statutory exemption from legal liability. This effectively means that they are liable to be sued in civil and criminal courts across the country and they are liable to defend each one of them for third party data or information made available by them.”
So the Ghaziabad FIR may just be the first in a volley of shots aimed in the company’s direction.
OTOH: Others are not as convinced. They argue that it isn’t clear if the new IT rules—and the requirements it imposes on Twitter et al—are in fact constitutional. For example: requiring it to delete tweets or block accounts on demand. And a court case will be necessary to clarify the same—and a number of media organisations have already filed a legal challenge). Some also insist that the government cannot simply revoke Twitter’s immunity:
“As far as the safe harbour protection is concerned, it is for the courts to determine and not for the government to declare. Twitter has stated that it has taken various measures to comply with the 2021 Rules… It would be best left to the courts to decide whether these measures are sufficient to comply with the rules.”
The bottomline: The government’s fiercest critics have long enjoyed the ‘safe harbour’ of Twitter. And it wants the company to force them to just STFU. So the government keeps tightening the screws in the hope that the company will surrender. Twitter, however, is Twitter—a cesspool of trolls and hotbed of dissent, and both are essential to its core business. Hence, the ongoing game of chicken where neither side is willing to blink… as yet.
The Telegraph has the best overview on the Twitter FIR. The Quint and The Print have the most details on the Saifi case. Read either the Internet Freedom Foundation’s thread or The Times of India on the ‘intermediary’ status angle. Also check out: Minister Prasad’s extended thread on Twitter’s various sins. We looked at the new digital media rules here, and how they apply to Twitter here (including why they triggered the fight with the government).
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