Elon Musk’s recent announcement of charging a fee of $8 a month from users who have a Twitter Blue tick for verified accounts drew a lot of flak from users of the microblogging site. While most users are upset that a feature that was, up until now, free was being placed behind a paywall, there is a more significant issue at play here – what is Elon Musk planning to do legally in India?
When Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (or IT Rules, 2021) were passed on 25th February 2021, one of the sections of the new legislation stated that the social media platform should allow all users to get voluntarily verified, to ensure an open, safe, trusted and accountable Internet experience for all Internet users.
The section in question is Section 4 (7) of the Information Technology Rules Act 2021, which says reads as follows:
The significant social media intermediary shall enable users who register for their services from India, or use their services in India, to voluntarily verify their accounts by using any appropriate mechanism, including the active Indian mobile number of such users, and where any user voluntarily verifies their account, such user shall be provided with a demonstrable and visible mark of verification, which shall be visible to all users of the service:
Provided that the information received for the purpose of verification under this sub-rule shall not be used for any other purpose, unless the user expressly consents to such use.”
To stop the spread of misinformation, bigotry, misogyny, and other hate messages from corrupting social media, the Government of India prefers that people who use social media do so with verified accounts, ensuring accountability. But because specific tasks, such as whistleblowing and breaking sensitive and essential news on critical topics, need confidentiality and anonymity, this verification must be voluntary.
Elon Musk and the Indian government are thinking similarly to the extent that they speak about accountability. One of the biggest reasons Elon Musk wants to revamp Twitter’s system of verifying users is that it is broken. However, this is where the similarity ends.
Elon Musk believes that one of the critical ways to fix Twitter’s verified accounts program is by charging users a specific fee for having a verified account. For users who operate their funds out of a developed country, the cost would be $8 a month. However, that may not be the pricing in India. Right from the moment, he announced that Twitter would be charging an $8 fee a month, Musk claimed that this price would be determined based on PPP or Purchasing Power Parity for other countries.
If $8 a month means a lot of money in a local currency, Twitter’s pricing will be adjusted per the average income of an individual in that country.
We spoke with a senior Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology official, or MeitY, to see if the Indian IT Rules of 2021 allow Twitter to charge a fee for verification. Upon their instruction, we have withheld their name.
“When these rules were drafted, we did not envision platforms charging a fee as Twitter plans to. However, we must remember that verification is voluntary, and it is up to the user to decide if they want to get verified. Had that not been the case, we would be having a different conversation,” they said.
What complicates matters more is the fact that Elon Musk is bundling several other services with Twitter Blue Tick for verified accounts. According to Musk’s tweets, users who pay for the verified blue tick will also be given a preference in terms of visibility through mentions, replies, and searches. Such users will also be able to use newer features before non-paying users. Furthermore, Twitter will also show fewer ads to users who pay for Twitter Blue Tick.
“It certainly becomes a value-added service in that case. The verified badge on its own isn’t an essential service,” adds the senior official from MeitY.
Siddharth Chandrashekhar, an advocate & counsel who practices at the Bombay High Court, weighed in, saying, “The fee that Twitter is proposing to charge users does not contravene 4(7) of the IT (Intermediary Guidelines & Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. the rules make a provision for SMIs to “enable users” and further makes this “voluntary” as far as users are concerned.”
He adds, “There is no express bar to charging a fee nor providing any value-added services to some users to the exclusion of others since the rules do not compel SMIs to provide (all their services) without any economic remuneration.”
“People without the blue tick can still be a part of that platform and continue to have the same functionalities that they had. Having the blue tick is not essential, at least in my opinion, so I don’t see the Indian government intervening in this anytime soon,” said the senior official from MeitY.
But what about government officials, members of the Indian government, and people who occupy offices of power? And who will be paying for their verified accounts?
“We don’t have any official communication from Twitter that tells us about the changes in their policy, everything that you and I know is coming from tweets of the gentleman who is now managing the platform (Elon Musk). I cannot comment on what will be done in such cases. We will cross that bridge when we come to it,” they added.
From a legal standpoint in India, it seems that Elon Musk is in the clear if he plans on charging $8 or any amount that he deems fit from Twitter Blue Tick users for their verified accounts, as long as he can present it as value-added services.
What will be interesting to see is whether he adds any other functionality behind a paywall. Rumors suggest that he is planning to place DMs behind a paywall. Unlike blue ticks or verified badges, DMs are an essential and integral part of a social media platform and are vital to the user experience. Will putting a feature like that behind a paywall constitute a violation? That remains to be seen.