Twitter temporarily blocks 250 handles amid farm stir
Twitter temporarily blocked in India, nearly 250 accounts that allegedly used a controversial hashtag after the central government asked the social media company to block access to the handles, in a move aimed “to prevent an escalation of violence” in the backdrop of the ongoing farmers agitation, people familiar with the matter said on Monday.
The local ban was imposed in the morning. By evening, the accounts were restored and the microblogging company said the content constituted free speech and was newsworthy. At least one of the handles to be restricted said it deleted a tweet that used the controversial hashtag.
“Pending our discussions with the regulatory authorities, we temporarily withheld these accounts in India under our Country Withheld Content policy in response to a valid legal request from the Ministry of electronics and information technology(MeitY),” Twitter said.
“During our subsequent meetings with the officials, Twitter conveyed that the accounts and tweets in question constitute free speech and are newsworthy. Therefore, these tweets and accounts have now been un-withheld. Protecting public conversation and transparency is fundamental to the work we do at Twitter,” the company added.
HT reached out to MEITY but did not get a response immediately.
MeitY issued the directions under section 69 (A) of the Information Technology Act after the ministry of home affairs (MHA) stepped in, the people cited above 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 government official familiar with the matter said.
The action was criticised by activists and free speech advocates who said the temporary suspension of the accounts violated constitutional rights to freedom of speech, and alleged the microblogging site had different standards of moderation and complying to government orders in different countries.
Under Section 69(A) of the IT Act, the government can suspend accounts that pose a threat to public order. It wasn’t immediately clear if the owners of the blocked handles were notified in advance. Users outside India could still see tweets from them.
Among the handles was that of Kisan Ekta Morcha, a farm organisation linked to the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, which is an umbrella group leading the ongoing farmers’ protest on Delhi’s borders. Action was also taken again the Twitter accounts of media outlet Caravan, Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar, activist Hansraj Meena, former Lok Sabha MP and CPI(M) leader Mohammed Salim, and actor Sushant Singh, among others. All accounts were restored by evening.
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 are accessible outside the country.
The government official cited above said MHA conveyed to MeitY last week 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,” the official said.
The blocking of Prasar Bharati CEO Shekhar’s account was likely a mistake because he drew the government’s attention to the controversial hashtag, the same official added.
On January 27, the microblogging website took down at least 500 accounts for “spam and platform manipulation”, a day after violence erupted during a rally by farmers in the national capital on Republic Day.
Digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation tweeted that decision to withhold accounts was taken under the “opaque” IT Act.
“Section 69A 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,” it said.