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IT Minister RS Prasad Twitter account briefly locked under DMCA notice: What happened and what is DMCA

Twitter apparently blocked Prasad's account because it violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of the USA

Ravi Shankar Prasad, India's IT Minister (Source: Reuters) Ravi Shankar Prasad, India's IT Minister (Source: Reuters)
Story highlights
  • Ravi Shankar Prasad said Twitter locked his account for violating copyright laws.
  • In its mail to Prasad, Twitter said the account went against DMCA.
  • DMCA has been a controversial law that online platforms cite to suspend or ban accounts.

Union Minister for Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad on Friday said Twitter locked his account briefly for violating copyright laws. Although his account was restored after a while, the minister posted a series of tweets to challenge Twitter's authority over the content that goes on its social media platform.

Prasad said Twitter violated India's new IT rules.

Twitter, however, apparently locked Prasad's account because it violated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of the USA that the company adheres to for its own copyright policy. So, what is DMCA? We take a look at the controversial law that Twitter and a horde of online platforms cite to suspend and ban accounts.

What is DMCA?

The DMCA is one of the old laws protecting intellectual property and copyright belonging to a person or an organisation. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act "criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works (commonly known as digital rights management or DRM)."

In a way DMCA is sort of go to law for almost all of the internet because over two decades ago when the WWW started to take over the world, there was no one framework that could be used to manage copyright on it. The problem was even more acute because of the global and borderless nature of the internet.

However, because most internet companies, at least in the late 1990s and early 2000s were based in the US, this US law became a de facto standard for copyright related issues.

How Twitter uses DMCA?

Twitter explains this well enough on its website. Let us quote from there: "Twitter responds to copyright complaints submitted under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act ("DMCA"). Section 512 of the DMCA outlines the statutory requirements necessary for formally reporting copyright infringement, as well as providing instructions on how an affected party can appeal a removal by submitting a compliant counter-notice

Twitter will respond to reports of alleged copyright infringement, such as allegations concerning the unauthorized use of a copyrighted image as a profile or header photo, allegations concerning the unauthorized use of a copyrighted video or image uploaded through our media hosting services, or Tweets containing links to allegedly infringing materials. Note that not all unauthorized uses of copyrighted materials are infringements (see our fair use article for more information)."

What does this mean?

It means that when Twitter gets a DMCA notice about a tweet or account, it will take action on it. This action can be in favour of the account reported, or in favour of the person or entity that has sent the DMCA notice. In case Twitter acts against a user for DMCA violation, according to the company, it will also inform the user about it and the action it is taking. Option is also given to the user whose tweet or account has been affected to appeal against the DMCA notice.

Here is an example. User A is a musician. She sees on Twitter that User B has posted a video clip with one of her clips as background music. She sends a DMCA notice to Twitter highlighting the tweet made by User B. Twitter finds that it is a copyright violation and takes action against User B. The funny part is that not all violations are intentional. In many cases users are not even aware that they are infringing on someone's copyright by forwarding or retweeting a viral clip that has a kid dancing on a popular song.

What happened in the case of Twitter account of the IT minister?

We don't have the full details yet. But people making DMCA appeals and tech companies taking actions on them are routine in the world of tech and social media. For example, just hours after the minister tweeted about what happened with his account, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor also said that one of his tweets was deleted by Twitter to comply with a DMCA notice. The tweet in question had a soundtrack Rasputin from Boney M.

Daily Twitter, Facebook and YouTube take actions on thousands of accounts on the basis of DMCA reports they receive from others (read aggrieved party).

Although, it is safe to say accounts belonging to ministers, celebrities or senior government officials are rarely part of the list of suspended or banned accounts. The reasons for that are two. One, ministers and prominent people are often very careful in what they tweet. They know the rules better than normal users, and they also know their tweets carry more authority. So they are rarely flippant about the content they are tweeting. And two, tech companies like Twitter often value these high-profile accounts and treat them with some leeway. For example, when Twitter decided to remove some of the tweets made by former US president Donald Trump after receiving DMCA appeals against them, it did so after some deliberations.

However, it seems there is something clearly amiss in the case of the Twitter account belonging to IT and Law Minister RS Prasad. Either the DMCA appeal was so stark that Twitter decided to simply act on it, or someone somewhere in the Twitter's DMCA enforcement team made an error.

Is it possible that RS Prasad's Twitter account was locked by algorithms?

It is a possibility but chances of it happening are slim. Most of the time, the content moderation and related activities on websites like Twitter and Facebook happen automatically, with AI driven algorithms. This is the reason why many Twitter accounts are suspended in India on a daily basis, after a large number of people often in a coordinated attempt in troll-like behaviour report a tweet or an account as "violation of rules". It is possible that the Twitter account of the law minister was targeted in the same way by some users. However, the problem with this theory is that the minister's account is a verified account, and also the one that can be called high-profile. In such accounts, usually Twitter limits automated actions.

What is next?

The Twitter account of the IT Minister has been restored. It was apparently inaccessible for over an hour, probably while Twitter figured out the content of the DMCA notice. However, the minister has said that "Twitter's actions were in gross violation of Rule 4(8) of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 where they failed to provide me any prior notice before denying me access to my own account." So it is possible that he may file a case against Twitter or order some action against the company.

At the same time, Tharoor has also promised to look into it. He has tweeted, "As Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, I can state that we will be seeking an explanation from @TwitterIndia for the locking of @rsprasad's & my accounts & the rules & procedures they follow while operating in India."