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Twitter stonewalls Parliamentary panel queries, gets a week to respond

The Indian Express logo The Indian Express 26-08-2022 Soumyarendra Barik, Liz Mathew
© Provided by The Indian Express

Twitter stonewalled queries Friday from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology on the company’s data security practices, The Indian Express has learnt. In its deposition before the panel, Twitter was said to have been questioned on the allegations of its former senior executive.  It is learnt to have said it did not have information on hiring of government agents.

The company was said to have been questioned by the panel — headed by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor — on the number of its employees with direct access to user data, and whether it had employed people who were  previously associated with the Indian government. The panel had summoned Twitter for a hearing on the subject of “Citizens’ Data Security and Privacy” after Peiter ‘Mudge’ Zatko, former head of safety at the company who is said to have been personally hired by former CEO Jack Dorsey, alleged that the government forced the social media company to hire one or more individuals who were government agents and had unsupervised access to vast amounts of the platform’s user data.

Twitter, which was represented by its senior India policy officials Samiran Gupta and Shagufta Kamran, was said to have sought additional time to respond to questions from the panel.

At the end of the hearing, the committee is learnt to have given the company a week’s time to send written submissions.

In a whistleblower complaint filed with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this week, Zatko accused Twitter of not disclosing to users that “it was believed by the executive team that the Indian government had succeeded in placing agents on the company payroll”. He also alleged that the company “knowingly” permitted an “Indian government agent direct unsupervised access to the company’s systems and user data”.

In February last year, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) notified the Information Technology Rules, 2021. These rules mandated social media companies to hire key personnel - nodal officers — who would solely liaison with law enforcement agencies to assist them in investigations. The companies were also required to hire a compliance officer, who would ensure compliance with the rules, and a grievance officer, who would resolve user complaints. It is unclear whether there is any link between Zatko’s claims about Twitter staffing a “government agent” and the employees the company was mandated to hire under the IT Rules, 2021. Zatko has said that evidence to support this claim has been shared with US intelligence.

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The accusations come as Twitter is engaged in two high-profile legal battles — one with the Centre over some of its content blocking orders, and another one with Tesla CEO Elon Musk in the US over his desire to pull out of his $44-billion bid to buy the social media companies.

Last month, the company had moved the Karnataka High Court seeking to overturn 39 links flagged by the MeitY to be blocked, claiming that the blocking orders were beyond the purview of the law.

Twitter also sued Musk for wanting to terminate his deal for buying the platform. Notably, in this legal action, Musk has alleged that the company’s decision to challenge MeitY’s blocking orders was a “departure from the ordinary course” and put its business in India “at risk”. Twitter, in response, has stated that its actions in India are in line with its “global practice” of challenging government requests or laws if it believes that such requests are not “properly scoped under local law, are procedurally deficient, or as necessary to defend its users’ rights, including freedom of expression”.

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