Google, Facebook and Twitter said they had heated meetings with Indian officials about removing fake news.

Deepak Gupta
Deepak Gupta February 2, 2022
Updated 2022/02/02 at 12:05 PM

Indian officials have held heated arguments with Google, Twitter and Facebook for failing to proactively remove what they described as fake news on their platforms, sources told Reuters, the government’s latest feud with Big Tech.

Officials, from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), strongly criticized the companies and said their inaction on fake news was forcing the Indian government to order the removal of content, which in turn drew international criticism that the authorities were suppressing free speech, two sources. he said.

The sources, who were familiar with proceedings at the virtual meeting on Monday, described the conversation as tense and heated, signaling a new low in ties between American tech giants and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

Officials did not issue any ultimatums to the companies at the meeting, the sources said. The government has been tightening regulations in the tech sector, but wants companies to do more in content moderation.

The meeting was a continuation of the I&B ministry’s use of “emergency powers” in December and January to order the blocking of 55 channels on Google’s YouTube platform and some Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The government had said the channels were promoting “fake news” or “anti-India” content and that the disinformation was being spread by accounts based in neighboring Pakistan.

The R&B ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the meeting, which was also attended by Indian content-sharing platforms ShareChat and Koo, which have millions of users in the country.

Facebook, now known as Meta, Twitter and ShareChat declined to comment.

Without commenting on the meeting, Alphabet’s Google said in a statement that it reviews government requests and “where appropriate, we restrict or remove content in accordance with local laws.” Koo said it complies with local laws and has strong content moderation practices.

In its transparency reports, Twitter said that the Indian government makes the most requests to remove content from its platform. Tech website Comparitech said in October that India made 97,631 content removal requests in 2020, the second highest in the world after Russia, mostly to Facebook and Google.

stranded ties

During the meeting, senior technology executives told employees that they take appropriate steps to remove or contain the spread of misinformation on their platforms and act on legally valid content removal requests, the sources said.

Employees told Google to review its internal guidelines to automatically remove fake content, the sources said.

Officials also said the government was disappointed that major social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, were not detecting and removing this content on their own.

Instead, the government was forced to order takedowns, opening it up to criticism and damaging its public image, officials said during the meeting, according to the sources.

Google executives told I&B employees that one way to resolve this was for the ministry to avoid making the withdrawal decisions public. Companies can work with the government and act on alleged false content, which can be beneficial to both sides, Google said, according to one of the sources.

The idea was summarily rejected by government officials, who said the removals also publicize how companies weren’t doing enough to fight fake news on their own, the person said.

In ordering the removal of certain online accounts in January, the government said it was doing so to “protect the general information environment in India”, adding that this false content was about “sensitive matters” such as the Indian Army, foreign affairs of India and state elections.

Digital rights advocates say these government orders restrict freedom of expression and set a worrying precedent.

“Detailed withdrawal orders are not released by the government,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, adding that the basis for the action was not explained.

This allowed authorities to censor the content even if it does not violate public order or state security, he said.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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