Govt cracks down on Twitter accounts talking about ‘farmer genocide’

Updated on Feb 01, 2021 06:36 PM IST

Twitter is moving to ease the restrictions against the users. These accounts are accessible outside India; legal teams are working to find feasible solutions, a person familiar with the matter said

Representational image. (AP)
Representational image. (AP)
ByDeeksha Bhardwaj

The Central government on Monday told Twitter to indefinitely withhold nearly 250 accounts and posts, that used the hashtag #Modiplanningfarmergenocide on the microblogging website, “to prevent an escalation of violence”, people familiar with the matter said.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity) issued the directions under Section 69(A) of the Information Technology Act after it received directions in this regard from the Ministry of Home Affairs, the people said. “The Home ministry said that the tweets could lead to an adverse law and order situation. The accounts have been withheld to prevent an escalation of violence,” a person familiar with the matter said.

Under Section 69(A) of the IT Act, the government can suspend accounts that pose a threat to public order.

Action has been taken against the accounts including farmers’ collective Kisan Ekta Morcha, news portal Caravan India, actor Sushant, Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar, activist Hansraj Meena and former Lok Sabha MP and CPI(M) leader Mohammed Salim.

The withholding of Shekhar’s account was likely a mistake because he drew the government’s attention to the hashtag, an official said. “His account will soon be available again, there must have been some confusion” said an official familiar with the matter. “He was the one who drew the government’s attention to the hashtag that was being used.”

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Withholding an account under Twitter’s policy restricts access to posts by the person and is done in accordance with the country’s laws. This is different from a suspension, as the account can be made available again and the restrictions are limited to the “specific jurisdiction that has issued the valid legal demand or where the content has been found to violate local law”. The accounts, according to the message displayed by the site, had been withheld in India upon receipt of a legal demand. They are accessible outside the country.

A second person said that Twitter was moving to ease the restrictions against the users. “These accounts are accessible outside India,” the second person said. “Legal teams are working to find feasible solutions. The accounts may be restored soon.”

Officials said that the MHA conveyed to the Meity last week that the “situation had the potential to spiral”. “MHA’s agencies looked into the matter and conveyed that the situation had the potential to spiral. The accounts were tweeting about an impending farmer genocide. The government can’t allow anyone to incite violence,” an official said.

In a statement on Monday, Twitter said, “Many countries have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to people everywhere, if we receive a properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time. Transparency is vital to protecting freedom of expression, so we have a notice policy for withheld content. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content, we will promptly notify the affected account holders (unless we are prohibited from doing so e.g. if we receive a court order under seal).”

On January 27, the microblogging website took down at least 500 accounts for “spam and platform manipulation”, a day after the farmers’ tractor rally on Republic Day turned violent in Delhi.

Thousands of farmers have been camping at Delhi’s borders since November last year, seeking a repeal of the new farm laws, which they say will erode their bargaining power, weaken a system of assured prices, and leave them vulnerable to exploitation by big agri-businesses.

The government has maintained that the laws aim to ease restrictions on farm trade by setting up free markets, allow traders to stockpile large stocks of food for future sales and lay down a framework for contract farming.

The decision caused a political storm with the Congress condemning the government. “We condemn these anti-farmer , anti-journalist, anti-media actions taken by the government,” senior party leader P Chidambaram said at a press conference. Civil rights activists also slammed the microblogging site for stifling freedom of expression and being in cahoots with the government.

Digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) tweeted that decision was taken under the “opaque” IT Act. “Reports suggest that a large number of Twitter accounts which were sharing information about the farmers’ protests have been blocked by Meity under the opaque Section 69(A) of the Information Technology Act,” IFF said. “Section 69(A) and the IT Blocking Rules prevent intermediaries like Twitter from disclosing any information about blocking of an account or tweet. The confidentiality requirement present under Rule 16 of the IT Blocking Rules creates a bizarre situation where citizens have the right to challenge blocking of online content, but they are unable to do so because they don’t have access to these legal orders.”

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