Twitter might face legal trouble in India when it rolls out Elon Musk’s controversial plan to charge for blue-tick verification.
The verification service, costing a monthly $8, will be rolled out in India “within a month,” Musk said. But this launch could breach a 2021 Indian law that requires significant social media entities to enable users “to voluntarily” verify their accounts. The statute doesn’t explicitly forbid verification fees. But one reading of the law could imply that platforms are obliged to verify user identities on request, and that charging for the service is an attempt to evade that obligation, according to Ameet Datta, a Noida-based lawyer with expertise in technology law and regulation.
“The non-compliance of the local rules, which require social media firms to verify an account voluntarily, would create a barrier for Twitter to run its business smoothly in India,” Datta told Quartz.
“With its old board, Twitter has often been entangled in controversies with the Indian government, and now Musk’s new rule can make its existence in India questionable and will leave it with no option but to rethink its strategy to charge for verification,” he said.
India has already signaled that Twitter will need to follow all existing laws, irrespective of its ownership.
“Our rules and laws for intermediaries remain the same regardless of who owns the platforms,” Rajeev Chandrasekhar, India’s minister of state for electronics and information technology, told Reuters last month. “So the expectation of compliance with Indian laws and rules remains.”
Twitter, which is reportedly planning to shut its India office and has already fired 90% of its staff in the country, has often been embroiled in content moderation controversies. Over the last two years, prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has reportedly asked Twitter to remove accounts spreading misinformation about various protests against the government, as well as accounts critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
In July, Twitter filed a legal petition to overturn some of these orders asking for content removal. The case is currently being heard in a high court in Karnataka.
Last year, Twitter’s offices in Delhi were also raided by a special police cell after the site marked some posts by leaders from Modi’s party as “manipulated media.”
Twitter has an estimated user base of 17.5 million in India and has played a major role in political campaigning. Political parties, especially Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), frequently use the platform to target voters.
Now, given Twitter’s already strained relationship with Indian authorities, critics of Modi’s government believe that Musk might try to bend Twitter to the ruling party’s demands. In return, this will ease the way for his other business ventures in India. (A similar scenario is expected to play out in China.)
For example, last month, Musk’s SpaceX applied to India’s telecom ministry for a license to launch broadband-from-space services through its Starlink satellites. Starlink had registered its subsidiary in India—Starlink Satellite Communications—last year, to apply for licenses.
Musk’s electric car business is also waiting to take off in India. Tesla’s much-awaited Indian debut landed in trouble after the Modi government denied tax breaks to the company despite Musk’s constant demands for such rebates.