Tussle intensifies: Twitter, govt at odds over blocking
A government official, who asked not to be named, said Twitter cannot pick and choose which accounts to block.
Twitter on Wednesday said that it complied partially with the government’s requests to block access to accounts, but let others — particularly those by journalists, activists and politics — remain since the directions were “not consistent with Indian law”, prompting the government to express “disappointment” during a meeting with top executives of the social media company later in the day.
Twitter’s blog, which gave details of its actions, said: “...we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law.” And, it added, “in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.”
The statement, released on Wednesday morning, prompted an initial response from the ministry of electronics and information technology (Meity) — significantly, on Koo, a home-made social media website meant to rival Twitter — and appeared to signal an escalation of a confrontation brewing for over a week.
Throughout the day, several government officials expressed dismay with Twitter’s actions, echoing remarks from last week when the government said the company was not in a position to judge its directions and had to follow them.
Representatives from the ministry and Twitter’s global policy and safety teams met later, where the Meity “secretary expressed his deep disappointment” about Twitter’s response. “He took this opportunity to remind Twitter that in India, its Constitution and laws are supreme. It is expected that responsible entities not only reaffirm but remain committed to compliance to the law of land,” Meity said in a statement after the meeting in the evening.
A government official, who asked not to be named, said Twitter cannot pick and choose which accounts to block. A second official, who asked not to be named, however, was more reconciliatory, saying that the company appeared to have “taken down 95% of the accounts and posts” the government flagged.
HT reviewed Twitter’s disclosures to the Lumen database — a nonprofit repository meant to track online censorship — on the Indian government’s requests and found that the company had removed 702 URLs in all. These included posts as well as accounts.
The government is believed to have handed over a list of 1,300 URLs (for accounts as well as posts) in its two orders.
The first government official quoted above said: “We respect freedom of expression, but it comes with reasonable restrictions. Hesitatingly taking action or begrudgingly taking down accounts is unacceptable.” The government, this person said, was seeking legal options while exercising restraint.
On its part, Twitter too said that it was seeking legal option. “We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve. We are exploring options under Indian law — both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted,” it said.
The confrontation between the two sides started in the aftermath of the January 26 violence in the Capital during the farmers’ protests. The government first ordered Twitter to block 257 accounts citing emergency powers under section 69A of the IT Act, targeting accounts that it said were inciting violence during the protests.
On Wednesday, it elaborated further on why it defied the government orders and only partially restricted accounts: “Out of these (orders), two were emergency blocking orders that we temporarily complied with but subsequently restored access to the content in a manner that we believe was consistent with Indian law,” it said.
Legal experts say that at the heart of this dispute could be the nature of section 69A, which is opaque. “Under section 69A, and particularly rule 16, a company is under obligation of confidentiality, so we don’t actually know what reasons were cited by the government in its orders. It is not untenable for a private company to refuse to comply with directions under this section if it believes the direction is not consistent with law,” said Amber Sinha, technology lawyer and executive director of Centre for Internet and Society.
Sinha added that the government has broad powers under Section 69A, and there is a lack of clarity around the functioning of a Review Committee that is meant to evaluate the proportionality of emergency orders issued by invoking this section.
While the action has been partial, the company has still taken down hundreds of accounts, its blog post said.
The company said it took three steps to partially address the government’s directions: it reduced the visibility of certain hashtags “containing harmful content”, took enforcement action – “including permanent suspension” against over 500 accounts, and blocked from access in India several of the others identified by the government.
A Twitter spokesperson said the company had no further comment when asked to share details of what hashtags it acted against, which accounts it blocked on its own for misuse of its rules, and which accounts had been withheld in India.
Internet freedom activists said Twitter has typically pushed back strongly against governments in refusing to censor content, at times even defying laws in the United States, where the company is based. “There are a couple areas where they are much less restrictive than others, for example, when it comes to so-called terrorist content like the Hezbollah that US considers a terror group, and nudity and sex work. These are areas where they are not as restricting and these particular examples are interesting because they are pushing up against US law,” said Jillian C York, director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in an interview to HT.