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India’s trouble with monitoring of social media continues

With reports of Bengaluru Police summoning Twitter India marketing head, it looks like the tussle between Indian law enforcement agencies and the social media companies over sharing of information continues. On Monday, the Bengaluru police said it had issued a notice to Twitter asking the marketing head to appear before it by 5pm in the evening.

Dissatisfaction on the manner in which Twitter has responded to the police’s queries following the arrest of Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who was handing a pro-ISIS Twitter handle @ShamiWItness from Bengaluru, has been cited as the reason for the same.  

This is not the first time that the Indian government has entered into a battle with an information technology giants over sharing of contents. In the past, every time there has been a national security issue, the police authorities have complained about non-cooperation by social media companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter in helping with the probe. These companies on the other hand, with contrast the former’s accusations by stating their commitment to Indian laws.

A similar situation had surfaced a few months back when popular messenger service WhatsApp was approached by the Indian government to block contents being used to incite communal violence in many parts of Uttar Pradesh. The government had said that time that it is finding it difficult to regulate content since WhatsAPP had no office or servers in the country.

The popular messaging application has over 40 million Indian users making India one of its largest markets outside the US.
Several instances had come to light where communal clashes were being planned or instigated through videos circulating on WhatsApp. The official said when riots broke out in Saharanpur over the extension of a gurudwara, the government wrote to the global offices of Facebook and WhatsApp and managed to get a particularly menacing video blocked.

A few years ago, India’s inability to control content-sharing over social media platforms is also what led to the mass exodus of north-east population from Bengaluru. A court case has also been filed on Internet giant Yahoo after it allegedly failed to comply with requests by the Indian government to provide information regarding the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2009.

On Saturday, the police arrested Biswas – the man running a pro-Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) Twitter handle from a rented apartment. A first information report has been filed against Biswas, charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the IT Act, 2000, of the Indian Penal Code.

Biswas, 24 and an engineer hailing from West Bengal, has been working as a manufacturing executive with ITC Foods here since 2012.

Biswas, who posted pro-ISIS messages on micro-blogging website Twitter with the handle – @ShamiWitness, had confessed he operated the account, police confirmed. “He (Biswas) was particularly close to the English-speaking terrorists of ISIS and became a source of incitement and information for new recruits trying to join ISIS,” the police said in a statement. “Through his social media propaganda, he abetted ISIS in its agenda to wage war against Asiatic powers. He was careful in hiding his true identity and was confident it would never be revealed.”

The police’s crime branch had started a probe into the matter on Friday, after a report by British public-service television broadcaster Channel4 claimed it had tracked down a pro-ISIS Twitter handle operating out of Bengaluru.

After the Channel4 report, Biswas’s Twitter handle was taken down, following which other pro-ISIS twitter accounts, such as @Marwan_Tunsi and @aldawiawi, have also gone off the site. Biswas’s Twitter account had about 17,800 followers and published about 130,000 tweets, seen more than two million times a month. Perhaps, this is the highest following any pro-ISIS Twitter account has had so far.

However, India’s own security apparatus failed to identify the twitter handle and the government acted only after the Channel4 report.


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