Govt of India vs Twitter: From Kashmir clampdown to farmers’ protest

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In the wake of intense farmers’ protest against the Government of India (GoI), New Delhi has directed microblogging website Twitter to suspend or block 1,200 Twitter accounts that were “Khalistan sympathisers or backed by Pakistan”.

New Delhi issued this list barely a week after Twitter’s compliance with a previous government directive dated 31 January brought it under intense criticism. Twitter had suspended several accounts vocal on the ongoing farmers’ protest, including a newsmagazine, The Caravan.

This was a critical moment for Twitter to uphold its belief that “Tweets must continue to flow”. Many users saw Twitter’s actions as an attempt of enabling censorship. The social media giant’s “content withheld policy”, based on which the platform regulates content uploaded on it, varies as per local laws.

The notices were issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) under Section 69 (A) of the Information Technology Act that empowers the Indian government to block access to online content that is seen to pose a threat to public order.

Critics have accused the central government of attacking freedom of speech and press by throttling internet access and forcing social media companies to take down content it finds objectionable during a political upheaval.

However, this tactic by New Delhi isn’t new. It has been tried and tested in Kashmir.

The Kashmir template

Immediately after 5 August 2019, when New Delhi revoked the erstwhile state’s limited-autonomy, enforced restrictions and a communication blackout, similar orders were served to Twitter.

Within two weeks, the GoI issued eight orders seeking to censor content on Kashmir clampdown. It was then the highest-ever requests made by the government to Twitter in a month to censor content.

This pattern by the government in Kashmir to censor voices could be traced even before the August 2019 episode. Hundreds of thousands of tweets blocked in India from August 2017 to August 2019 were shared by accounts that focussed on Kashmir, according to an analysis of these notices by the international media-watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The CPJ’s analysis further revealed that the vast majority of the withheld accounts referred to Kashmir in their tweets, names, or bios. These accounts had put out more than 9,20,000 tweets. The CPJ accused GoI of using an opaque legal process to “suppress Kashmiri journalism, commentary on Twitter”.

In the August clampdown’s application, the government had deplatformed millions of users in Jammu and Kashmir as the internet remained inaccessible for a record time.

In 2019, Twitter received 1,286 orders seeking removal or blocking of content while in 2020 the number increased more than twice: a whooping 2,772 orders within the first half of the year alone.

India has emerged as a global leader in directing Twitter to withhold content on its platform. As per the data provided by Twitter itself, India sends the second highest volume of requests globally, comprising nearly 25 percent of global accounts specified requests.

Twitter continues to be a heated issue for the regional law enforcement agencies in Kashmir. Last year, The Kashmir Walla exclusively reported that the police had summoned Twitter users, asking them to refrain from commentary on Kashmir.

The tussle

Whereas Twitter did not suspend/restrict every URL listed by the government that shared content on Kashmir, it has, unlike earlier instances, played a more evident balancing act this time, remarkably restating that “Tweets must continue to flow”.

Merely hours after Twitter blocked about 250 accounts, it restored most of them on 1 February. The company said in a statement: “We strongly believe that the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact”.

This move irked the information ministry MEITY, various media reports quoted unidentified officials as saying. In return, the government again issued a notice to Twitter directing it to block the accounts — even threatening the company’s official with a fine and a jail term upto seven years under Section 69 (A).

Stating that the company’s top priority is safety of employees, Twitter added in the statement that it continues “to be engaged with the Government of India from a position of respect and have reached out .. for a formal dialogue.”

In fact, Twitter challenged the government in a blog published on Wednesday that they didn’t believe that the actions they were directed to perform by New Delhi “are consistent with Indian law”.

“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,” said the company. “To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.”

With Twitter pushing back, many key Indian government-linked accounts, including the official handle of the MEITY, joined Koo, India’s own version of Twitter that was awarded the government’s Atmanirbhar App challenge.

Fast forward to the end of the week, Twitter compiled to the government’s directions and took down nearly 97 per cent of the flagged handles. Twitter has also promised to “restructure” its team in India.

The outcome of this remarkable tussle was expected to shape the contours of internet space in the world’s largest democracy. And Big Tech has another precedent now.

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