What hit WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook in India in 2021
Explosive confrontations and standoffs between social media giants like WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, Google and the government marked a stormy start to 2021, and the coming year promises to be just as action-packed as India brings in legislation to protect personal data, enforces tighter checks on digital platforms and regulates cross border transfer of information.
The year began on a turbulent note for social media platforms when the government asked Twitter to block tweets and handles in connection with the farmers' agitation over agricultural laws, which have now been repealed. Twitter had complied, only to restore the accounts later, leading to a massive standoff between the microblogging platform and the government.
Matters only got worse for the microblogging platform as the government issued more notices in the following weeks to Twitter to take down accounts that were allegedly spreading misinformation and provocative content around farmers' protests. It withheld access to accounts of certain prominent personalities like Punjabi singer JazzyB, hip-hop artist L-Fresh the Lion and others in response to a legal demand in India.
Twitter went on an offensive and flagged concerns around the safety of its staff in the country. It alleged intimidation by the police after its office premises were searched by the Delhi police in May.
The government questioned Twitter's "differential treatment" in case of the US Capitol Hill siege, where it had taken prompt action and asked the platform to take swift action against "well-coordinated" campaigns being run around the farmers' protests.
Social media companies were under the lens globally too for hate speech, misinformation and fake news on their platforms. India, on several occasions, has emphasised that while it fully supports foreign and Indian companies in leveraging the internet as a "force of good", it will take all measures to ensure that the internet remains open and is not dominated by big companies.
And this was evident when the Centre introduced stringent rules for social media and OTT platforms in February to make them more accountable to end-users in one of the world's largest internet markets.
The rules required social media companies to take down contentious content quicker, appoint grievance redressal officers and assist in investigations. Significant social media intermediaries -- those with more than 50 lakh users -- have to follow additional due diligence, including appointment of chief compliance officer, a nodal contact person and a resident grievance officer and all the three officials will have to be residents in India.
The rules were controversial from the very start as platforms voiced concerns over traceability mandate and short timeline for appointment of the key officials.
While platforms like Facebook (now Meta) and Google complied with the rules by the May 26 deadline, Twitter -- even after the expiry of the additional time -- did not appoint the requisite officers, leading to it losing the 'safe harbour' immunity.
Non-compliance with rules would result in these social media companies losing their intermediary status that provides them exemptions from liabilities for any third-party information and data hosted by them.
Twitter -- which has had several run-ins with the government this year including marking of posts by BJP leaders as manipulated media -- found itself in murky waters after displaying a distorted map of India that showed Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh as a separate country. The glaring distortions added to a massive backlash from social media users.
In June, Twitter -- which has over 1.75 crore users in India -- courted controversy yet again when it temporarily blocked then IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad's account for alleged violation of the US Copyright Act, a move Prasad slammed as being arbitrary and gross violation of IT rules. Matters only aggravated after the verified blue badge was removed from many accounts, including the personal account of Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu.
"We value the open lines of communication with the Government of India and share a commitment to work together towards building a digitally inclusive, safe and Open Internet that encourages public conversation," a Twitter spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added that India is a priority market for Twitter -- one that it is deeply committed to -- and that it will continue to step up the level of proactive enforcement across the service and invest in technological solutions to tackle abuse and ever-evolving malicious online behaviour.
In November, Twitter Co-Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey announced that Parag Agrawal would succeed him in the top role. The India-born executive -- who served as Twitter's Chief Technology Officer since 2017 -- will have to navigate the regulatory challenges across markets and scale up user base and revenue.
Big tech companies globally are also facing greater scrutiny from regulators.
In India, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) is probing whether Google has adopted anti-competitive, unfair and restrictive trade practices in relation to Android operating system. In September, Google moved the Delhi High Court against the alleged leak of CCI's confidential report pertaining to the investigation against the tech giant.
2021 was also a remarkable year for homegrown platforms like Koo amid growing calls for expanding the ecosystem of homegrown digital platforms.
WhatsApp had also moved the Delhi High Court, challenging the new social media rules arguing that the traceability provision is unconstitutional and against people's fundamental right to privacy as underlined by the Supreme Court decision.
During the year, a row had erupted over Israeli spyware Pegasus allegedly being used for targeted surveillance in India. In October, the Supreme Court set up a three-member independent expert panel to probe the alleged use of the spyware for targeted surveillance in India.
Facebook -- which rebranded the parent firm as Meta in October -- also faced allegations that its system fuelled hate speech and fake news after Frances Haugen, an employee of the Facebook integrity team until May 2021, leaked tens of thousands of internal documents.
In July, there was a change of guard with bureaucrat-turned-politician Ashwini Vaishnaw taking charge of the IT, electronics and communication ministry. Rajeev Chandrasekhar was named MoS in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
In November, MeitY released a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the new social media and intermediary guidelines to bring more clarity and explain the legislation, and promised that the Standard Operating Procedures will follow soon. The SOPs around the IT rules and intermediary norms will have details of the appropriate agencies which will have the authority to issue takedown notices to platforms.
As the year drew to a close, a parliamentary panel submitted its report, recommending widening of the scope of proposed data protection legislation to include both personal and non-personal data with "a single administration and regulatory body". It has also recommended tougher norms to regulate social media platforms by holding them accountable for the content they host, while asserting that it is imperative to store data in India and restrict access to it by categorising it as sensitive and critical personal data.
Industry representatives have raised concerns on certain recommendations, including those around inclusion of non-personal data and expanded data localisation mandates, stating that these will harm people's rights and impact businesses.
"The most worrying aspect of the changes is that the government has been given complete power over the Data Protection Authority, in terms of issuing directions to the authority. This will undermine the DPA and their ability to hold the government accountable for violations," digital policy expert Nikhil Pahwa said.
The regulatory framework will continue to evolve, be defined and tightened for digital and data-driven companies through 2022, with passage of data protection bill in Parliament in the coming months.
And for social media companies in particular, their 'timelines' will be viewed through 'filters' of data privacy, user safety and compliance, in letter and spirit to India's new digital rules.