Indian officials have had heated meetings with Google, Twitter, and Facebook about their failure to proactively remove what they call bogus news from their platforms. This is the government’s latest spat with Big Tech.
Officials from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) slammed the companies, claiming that their inaction on fake news was forcing the Indian government to order content takedowns, which drew international criticism that the government was suppressing free speech, according to two sources.
The call was hot and acrimonious, according to people acquainted with the virtual encounter on Monday, signalling a new low in ties between American internet companies and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration.
At the meeting, the officials did not offer any ultimatums to the corporations, according to the sources. The government has tightened restrictions in the digital sector, but it wants corporations to perform more content filtering.
The meeting came after the I&B ministry used “emergency powers” to order the shutdown of 55 YouTube channels, as well as several Twitter and Facebook accounts, in December and January.
The government claimed that the stations were spreading “fake news” or “anti-India” content, and that the misinformation was coming from accounts in Pakistan.
The I&B ministry did not react to a request for comment on the meeting, which was also attended by ShareChat and Koo, two Indian content-sharing platforms with millions of users.
Twitter, ShareChat, and Facebook, now known as Meta, all declined to comment.
Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc., said in a statement that it evaluates government requests and “when appropriate, restricts or removes content in accordance with local laws.” It complies with local laws, according to Koo, and has strict content filtering policies in place.
According to Twitter’s transparency reports, the Indian government makes among the most requests to delete information from its platform. India made 97,631 material removal requests in 2020, the second-highest in the world behind Russia, according to technology website Comparitech, largely to Facebook and Google.
Senior tech executives informed officials during the meeting that they take necessary precautions to remove or prevent the spread of misinformation on their platforms, and that they act on legally-valid content removal requests, according to the sources.
According to the sources, officials instructed Google to reassess its internal procedures to automatically eliminate false information.
The administration was also disappointed, according to the sources, that major social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, were not detecting and eliminating such content on their own.
Instead, officials argued during the conference that the government was obliged to order takedowns, which exposed it to criticism and harmed its public image.
One approach to remedy this, according to Google executives, is for the ministry to avoid making takedown judgments public. According to one of the sources, Google stated that the companies might engage with the government to combat alleged phoney information, which would be a win-win situation for all parties.
The plan was flatly rejected by government officials, who said that the takedowns would draw attention to how the firms weren’t doing enough to combat false news on their own, according to the source.
The government stated it was taking down specific online accounts to “protect the overall information environment in India” in January, adding that the phoney content was on “important themes” like the Indian Army, India’s overseas ties, and local state elections.
Such government restrictions, according to digital rights experts, stifle free speech and create a dangerous precedent.
“The government does not make detailed removal orders public,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, adding that the reason for the action was not disclosed.
According to him, this allowed authorities to block content even if it did not violate public order or state security.