NEW DELHI – Twitter held its ground when last week the Indian government asked the social media platform to remove hundreds of accounts that criticized the government for their behavior during angry farmer protests.
On Wednesday, facing the threat of imprisonment against its local employees, Twitter was pleased.
The San Francisco-based company said it has permanently blocked more than 500 accounts and moved an unknown number of people to India after the government accused it of making partial remarks about Narendra Modi, prime minister of the country. Twitter said it took action after the government made its notice of noncompliance, a move that experts say could put the company’s local employees at risk of imprisonment for up to seven years.
In one blog posts announced on Wednesday, Twitter said it would not take any action against accounts belonging to media organizations, journalists, activists or politicians, saying it did not believe it. orders blocking them “in accordance with Indian law.” It also said it is reviewing its options under local law and has requested a meeting with a senior government official.
“We are still committed to the health of the conversations that take place on Twitter,” it said, “and strongly believe that tweets will be sent.”
The brewing conflict in India provides a particularly clear example of Twitter’s challenge to adhere to its self-declaration principles in favor of free speech. This foundation has been caught up in an increasingly heated debate about the enormous role social media play in politics and the growing need in many countries to overpower that influence.
In the United States, Twitter was brought to the center of the conflict last month after it permanently suspended the accounts of Donald J. Trump, the former president, for encouraging protests in Washington, DC, into violence. In that case, it exercises its rights under US law, providing social platforms with the ability for the police to speak out about their services.
But in India, Twitter is blocking accounts at the request of the government. Controlled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the Indian government has become increasingly aggressive in stifling dissent. It arrested activists and journalists, and put pressure on media organizations to follow its line. It has also cut off mobile Internet access in troubled areas.
Amid growing competition with China, the Indian government has blocked several apps owned by Chinese companies, including TikTok, a short video-sharing network known for videos of missing bars. year and dance queen.
The government has also taken a tougher stance against its critics on social media. Under Indian law, Twitter executives in India could face seven years in prison and a fine if the company fails to comply with a government order to remove content they deem of nature. subvert or pose a threat to public order and national security.
Human rights activists and lawyers said the country’s judiciary increasingly sided with the government, giving Modi a series of political victories. In November 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hindus in a decades-long dispute over a Muslim-disputed Ayodhya mecca. It also postponed lifting of restrictions on the internet and movement in the Jammu and Kashmir regions contested for a government-run committee.
Digital rights groups say government pressure on Twitter equates to censorship.
Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, said: “The power used to ban smartphone apps is the same power that is being used to direct Twitter to remove accounts and to order shutdowns. Internet”.
India represents a huge market of growth potential for global internet companies, with 1.3 billion inhabitants, increasingly expanding internet access and an ambitious middle class. The fact that government gets stronger in business complicates prospects.
The country ranked 5th in terms of content removal requests from Twitter, according to one company transparency report, after Japan, Russia, South Korea and Turkey. The country has submitted nearly 5,500 legal requests, including court orders, to block content. It also sent around 5,900 requests to access users’ personal information between January 2012 and June 2020.
That engagement came to the fore last year, when a prominent public interest lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, wrote tweets critical of the Indian Supreme Court’s role in undermining liberties. due in this country. Twitter removed the tweets mentioned. Digital rights advocates and lawyers said at the time the company had set a dangerous legal standard. Twitter declined to comment on Wednesday and said it had deleted Mr Bhushan’s tweets in accordance with legal directives.
India’s protest farmers have opened up a new front in the government’s effort to dominate social media.
Mr. Modi was locked in a months-long dispute with the country’s farmers over his government’s market-friendly farm law. Farmers, many from the state of Punjab in the northwestern part of the country, have set up camps in areas around the capital New Delhi. In late January, the protests turned violent after farmers entered the city – many on tractors – and in some places clashed with police.
Last week, Modi’s government asked Twitter to remove more than 1,000 additional accounts related to the protests. It is alleged that many are run by overseas Khalistan supporters, an effort that has been more active in the past decades to appeal to members of the Sikh religion to secede and become successful. set up their own country. Some were supported by Pakistan, India’s archenuous neighbor, the government accused.
Twitter initially suspended several accounts last week, including those of The Caravan, a reporting magazine that has reported closely on the protests. It later reinstated the accounts after informing the government that it considered the contents to be acceptable freedom of expression.
The Indian government’s behavior drew global attention last week when pop singer Rihanna retweeted an article about officials stopping internet access to areas of New Delhi during a farmer’s rally there. Greta Thunberg, environmental activist, also tweeted about demonstrations and shares a link to what she calls a toolkit, which includes supportive protesters’ discussion points as well as information on how to engage with others with similar feelings . Modi’s supporters have captured the link, saying it shows outside forces are assisting farmers.
Also on Wednesday, the Indian government appeared to be proving to Twitter that the company needed the country rather than the opposite. The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, the government body that is pressuring Twitter to take down the document, posted its response to Twitter’s blog post about a competing service in India that name Koo.
A virtual meeting between Twitter executives and government officials was held Wednesday night.
Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, a lawyer working on free speech issues in India, says Twitter is reaching a “delicate balance”.
“For companies, it’s a double bond,” said Ms. Mukhopadhyay. “They want their services to be available domestically, but they also don’t want to be complicit in censorship that does not comply with international human rights standards due to arbitrary or disproportionate.”
She said Twitter should push back and “use its influence to show the same courage it did when it blocked Donald Trump’s account.”
“They shouldn’t let it go just because this is a developing country.”
Mujib Mashal has contributed to the report.