India government: Twitter no longer enjoys immunity for user-generated content

The government of India stated in an affidavit on Tuesday that US microblogging platform Twitter has lost its legal immunity against claims arising from user-generated content due to its failure to comply with the country’s new technology rules.

The rules, known as the Information Technology (Guidelines For Intermediaries And Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, were notified by the central government in February this year for regulating digital content publishers such as social media intermediaries and online news platforms. They require social media intermediaries to provide a grievance redressal mechanism to Indian citizens, including the appointment of a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person, and grievance redressal officer.

Twitter has been embroiled in controversies with the authorities for its opposition to the new rules, with multiple statements on the protection of free speech being released back and forth, the company’s officials being summoned before a bipartisan parliamentary panel and the Delhi High Court warning the company that it cannot “take as much time as it wants” for compliance given that the deadline for the rules passed in the last week of May.

Although Twitter had in June appointed an interim compliance officer for grievance redressal as required under Rule 4 of the new IT Rules, the officer was not an employee of Twitter and eventually resigned within a few weeks of appointment.

The consequence of losing legal immunity from user-generated content, i.e. safe harbor protection under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act 2000, is that Twitter will be liable for any punishment under any law in respect of offending content posted on its platform. The company is already facing several lawsuits in India, including child pornographic content and an allegedly manipulated hate crime video.

The company informed the Delhi High Court on Thursday that it has appointed an interim chief compliance officer and will strive to fill the regular posts within eight weeks. Digital rights organizations such as the Internet Freedom Foundation have highlighted that until a court adjudicates the government’s claim of Twitter losing its immunity, the company will face no immediate consequences of non-compliance. It may however find itself facing several lawsuits until the courts decide on its intermediary status and ultimately the constitutionality of the new rules.