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For the past few months, India has been at the centre of a devastating breakdown of public health institutions and is currently experiencing a severe public health crisis due to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media platforms are a crucial channel for people to communicate about a number of important issues related to the pandemic, such as the availability of intensive care beds, delivery of oxygen cylinders, food, and protective clothing, among other essentials.
On 6 May, Instagram users in India had stories related to COVID-19 relief efforts, volunteer-driven initiatives and political critique taken down without notice or explanation. These pieces of content disappeared from Archives and Highlights in user profiles as well. Users reported that private chats pertaining to COVID-19-related efforts, activism, and political critique had also started disappearing. In a few instances, volunteer-driven COVID-19 relief pages were taken down entirely.
On 7 May, Instagram issued a public statement noting that this is a “widespread global technical issue not related to any topic” and later that day claimed to have “fixed the issue”. In a subsequent public statement from 8 May, the company noted that the problem arose because its “automated systems launched an update intended to better detect whether reshared media in a story was still available” and their systems ended up “treat[ing] all reshared media posted [before the rollout of this automated system] as missing”.
The dangers to freedom of expression inherent in automated content moderation have been pointed out by experts for years. In practice, such tools almost invariably have a disproportionate impact on the voices of marginalised and vulnerable communities, as is clear from the takedowns over the past week, not only in India, but in countries around the world.
In addition, we are concerned about a number of discrepancies in the explanations that have been given by Instagram in the context of takedowns in India:
Instagram’s statement mentions a glitch impacting takedowns in Colombia, Canada, the United States and East Jerusalem, but does not mention India. It remains unclear as to what impacted these specific takedowns in the Indian context, or whether additional factors such as governmental pressure are at play.
Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, clarified that this bug “wasn’t related to the content itself”. However, the content that was taken down was disproportionately pertaining to posts about COVID-19 relief, politics and activism. The substantive overlap is significant enough to warrant an explicit and clear public explanation on the same.
The statement’s explanation does not account for disappearing messages or takedown of volunteer-driven and activist accounts, many of which remain banned from the platform as of 10 May 2021 (two days after Instagram claims to have “fixed” the problem).
These developments come on the heels of Facebook’s censorship of content that called for India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to resign. Instagram’s latest moves were followed by Facebook suspending a renowned poet’s account after he shared content critical of the Prime Minister. Facebook’s lack of public accountability and opacity around takedowns in India is an increasingly common occurrence, and is inconsistent with tech firms’ responsibility to respect human rights under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It also has a serious impact on Indians’ fundamental rights including their right to freedom of expression, and their right to freedom of association and assembly online.
We, the undersigned organisations, urgently call on Instagram to:
Transparently and publicly share how these takedowns pertaining to COVID-19 relief efforts, political critique and calls for activism occurred, if any of them were requested, and if yes, who requested these takedowns and on what basis.
Reinstate all accounts and content taken down in breach of international standards on freedom of expression consistent with Facebook’s Corporate Human Rights Policy that explicitly reference international human rights treaties.
Follow due procedure under applicable laws and international human rights standards in assessing takedown requests for users’ content and accounts, and publish information about steps taken to protect freedom of expression – including active measures it has taken to ensure that content uploaded by users has not been unlawfully taken down.
Provide transparency on the actors and standards that play into decision-making processes involved in content takedowns in India.
Publicly commit to resist political pressure and judicial orders to take down content in breach of international standards on freedom of expression.
Establish multiple contact persons who can work directly with Indian users – activists, volunteer organisations, non-profits, bloggers, journalists, and opinion makers, including groups at risk – in order to assist them with problems they encounter on the platform.
Association for Progressive Communications
Center for Democracy and Technology
Centre for Internet and Society
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Human Rights Watch
Internet Freedom Foundation
Ranking Digital Rights