India seeks tougher action from US tech giants on fake news

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Indian officials have had heated discussions with GoogleTwitter and Facebook for not proactively removing what they described as fake news on their platforms, sources told Reuters, the government’s latest run-in with Big Tech. The officials, from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B), harshly criticized the companies, saying their inaction in the face of fake news was forcing the Indian government to order content removal, which in turn led to international criticism that authorities were clamping down on free speech, two sources said. saying.

The sources, who were familiar with proceedings at Monday’s virtual meeting, described the conversation as tense and heated, signaling a new low in ties between the US tech giants and the prime minister. Narendra Modiadministration of . Officials did not give the companies any ultimatums at the meeting, the sources said. The government has been tightening regulations on the tech sector, but wants companies to do more on content moderation.

The meeting was a follow-up to 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 I&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 Inc’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 has said that the Indian government makes one of the largest requests to remove content from its platform. Technology website Comparitech said in October that India made 97,631 content removal requests in 2020, the second highest in the world after Russia, mainly to Facebook and Google.

strained ties

During the meeting, top tech executives told officials that they take appropriate steps to remove or curb the spread of misinformation on their platforms, and act on legally valid content removal requests, the sources said. Officials told Google to review its internal guidelines to remove false content automatically, the sources said.

Officials also said the government was disappointed that the big social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, failed to detect and remove such content on their own. Instead, the government was forced to order takedowns, opening it up to criticism and damaging its public image, the officials said during the meeting, according to the sources.

Google executives told I&B officials that one way to resolve that was for the ministry to avoid making removal decisions public. The companies could work with the government and act on suspected false content, which could be beneficial to both parties, Google said, according to one of the sources.

The idea was summarily rejected by government officials, who said the takedowns also publicize how companies were not doing enough to tackle fake news on their own, the person said.

While ordering certain online accounts to be taken down in January, the government said it was doing so to “secure the general information environment in India”, adding that such false content concerned “sensitive topics” such as the Indian Army. , Indian foreign relations and local communications. state elections.

Digital rights advocates say such government orders limit freedom of expression and set a worrying precedent. “The government does not make detailed removal orders public,” 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 content even if it does not violate public order or state security, he said.

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