Twitter restores 250 accounts blocked in India for a controversial hashtag

ByDeeksha Bhardwaj, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Feb 01, 2021 11:07 PM IST

Twitter decided to restore the 250-odd accounts after a meeting with officials from the ministry of electronics and information technology

Microblogging website Twitter late Monday evening moved to restore nearly 250 accounts that were blocked in India earlier in the day for allegedly using a controversial hashtag, a person familiar with the matter said.

Twitter had 'withheld' nearly 250 accounts on the central government's request for content that the home ministry contended could lead to an escalation of violence(REUTERS)
Twitter had 'withheld' nearly 250 accounts on the central government's request for content that the home ministry contended could lead to an escalation of violence(REUTERS)

The decision to restore the accounts was taken after a meeting between Twitter officials and those from the ministry of electronics and information technology that had asked the social media company to block access to the handles “to prevent an escalation of violence” in the backdrop of the farmers' agitation.

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“Twitter had blocked these accounts in the interim in response to a valid legal request from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology pending discussions with them,” said a person familiar with the matter on condition of anonymity.

The accounts that had been “withheld” by Twitter included those of Kisan Ekta Morcha, activist Hansraj Meena, former Lok Sabha MP and CPI(M) leader Mohammed Salim, media outlet Caravan India, and actor Sushant Singh. The account of Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar, who had nudged Twitter to act against people using the hashtag, was also restricted.

The person added that the microblogging website conveyed to the officials concerned that the content withheld was "speech and newsworthy”. “Protecting public conversation and Transparency is fundamental to Twitter... the content is in process of being unblocked,” the person said.

Hindustan Times reached out to the electronics and information technology ministry for a response but did not receive one immediately.

But a government official had earlier explained that the IT ministry had issued directions to Twitter under Section 69 (A) of the Information Technology Act at the home ministry’s instance. “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 government official said hours before Twitter restored the accounts.

Section 69(A) of the IT Act empowers the government to block access to content that is seen to pose a threat to public order.

Withholding an account under Twitter’s policy restricts access to posts by the user. 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, were withheld in India upon receipt of a legal demand. They were accessible to Twitter users if they changed their settings to another country.

Twitter’s decision to act in line with the request from the government was sharply criticised by civil rights activists and opposition leaders who said it amounted to throttling free speech. Many people linked the decision to restrict access to selected accounts to their support to the farmers' protest.

“After Facebook, the Modi govt seems to have taken control of Twitter India. This backdoor attempt to block the voice of those, who speak for free speech & farmers rights, has unmasked the authoritarian soul of this fascist BJP regime,” Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said.

Surjewala said the government had set a new standard in humiliating the constitution of the world’s largest democracy by compelling tech platforms to block accounts of anti-establishment entities, the Modi government has set.

“Shocking! @TwitterIndia suspends several accounts of handles giving information about Farmers protests in response to 'legal demands'! Of whom? Govt? Certainly not of any court. If Twitter is going to kowtow to govt demands, how can it call itself an independent platform for FOE(freedom of expression),” lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan said.

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