Explained: Twitter Versus The Government Of India

Tushar G.

Feb 09, 2021, 05:49 PM | Updated 05:49 PM IST

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.
  • By pushing all possible limits, despite repeated formal government orders to withhold inflammatory posts and accounts over the farmers' violence, Twitter is risking a total ban in India.
  • No platform in India is indispensable. What is indispensable is the law of the land, and Twitter must stop taking it lightly.
  • Fresh from the controversy surrounding former President Donald Trump’s account suspension, Twitter has now invited further trouble in India.

    The incoming Democratic government in the United States ensured that the suspension of Trump’s Twitter account, with 88 million followers, had no consequences for Twitter.

    In India, however, the selective inaction of Twitter post-Republic Day violence has invited the government's ire. At this moment, all options are on the table, including Twitter being blocked in India.

    So, where did it all start?

    On 1 February, close to 100 Twitter accounts and 150 tweets relevant to the ongoing farmers’ protests were blocked. The suspended accounts included many prominent individuals and organisations, including a digital-print publication. The direction came from the IT Ministry. However, later in the evening, the accounts were unblocked, and trouble started brewing.

    According to media reports, Twitter had decided to withhold these accounts under their Country Withheld Content Policy as a response to a legal request from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

    However, claims were made in these reports that Twitter’s representatives had conveyed to the government that the withheld accounts and tweets were 'newsworthy'. By virtue of them being 'critical to news' and free speech, they could not be withheld.

    The government’s claim was a complete opposite, stating that they had not changed their stance on the order even after the meeting.

    Why were these accounts and tweets withheld?

    The tweets in question and the accounts propagating these tweets could have ushered in a new wave of violence.

    The government, in its notice to Twitter, stated that the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide was found to be instigating, encouraging people to commit offences and participate in aggravating the violence.

    The notice also stated that Twitter could not decide upon the disproportionality or impracticability of the said order, given Twitter is an intermediary bound by the orders of the Government of India.

    Bashing the selective inaction of Twitter further, the notice called out Twitter’s claims of the hashtag not being inflammatory in nature, given the claims were not consistent with the recent judgements of the apex court.

    The government’s notice also pointed out as to how the interim order of withholding these accounts and tweets was to remain in operation even after the meeting with the representatives of Twitter on 1 February.

    Twitter, instead, had chosen to not comply with the order, but to also justify its non-compliance with the order, further inviting the government’s anger.

    More ‘blocking’ orders

    On 31 January, the government had ordered 257 handles and tweets to be blocked on Twitter. However, by 4 February, another order was issued that warranted blocking of more than 1,100 Twitter accounts.

    An updated list was shared by the ministry with Twitter which included accounts of Khalistani sympathisers, accounts backed by Pakistan or operating from foreign territories that posed a threat to law and order.

    Some of these accounts were also reported to be functioning as automated bots, merely aggravating the propaganda and other provocative tweets related to farmers’ protests.

    However, the platform is yet to take any action against these flagged accounts, citing its foundational principle of 'free expression'.

    To top it all, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been seen endorsing some of the tweets from foreign celebrities endorsing the disinformation about the farmers’ protests.

    Twitter’s Weak Defence

    Twitter, in its defence, has stated that any request received from the government is dealt with factoring in two aspects.

    One, the rules that govern the platform, and two, the validity of the request under the local law.

    Therefore, if the content is found to violate the platform's rules, it is completely removed, as was the case with Trump’s Twitter account.

    However, if the content does not violate the platform rules but the law of the land, it is blocked within the country, or a certain location only.

    However, the content flagged by the government has not been withheld in the country as well. It must also be noted that the accounts and tweets withheld by the platform on 1 February were withheld within India alone.

    The Information Technology Act’s Section 69A

    What gives the government the rightful power to dictate to Twitter on the suspension of accounts is the Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000.

    The Act allows the government to block public access to any intermediary ‘in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with the foreign States, or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relative to the above’.

    The intermediaries, as per this Act, includes telecommunication companies, internet service providers, network operators, web-hosting services, search engines, payment gateways, and other relevant portals and services.

    Section 69A of the Act has also been upheld by the apex court.

    Twitter could be in trouble

    As per recent media reports, senior officials in the government believe that Twitter could be in serious trouble if they fail to withhold the accounts and tweets flagged by the IT ministry.

    However, the Centre will want to give the platform a long rope to not appear vindictive or vengeful, given whatever step a government of 1.3 billion takes could set a precedent across the world.

    This tussle comes at a time when the Australian government is up against Google, and Europe, too, is going hard against Big Tech.

    So, what are the options before the government?

    One, lodging an FIR against the platform under Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000. In the past, Facebook and YouTube have complied with similar requests from the government.

    Two, go and block Twitter across India. However, far-fetched and improbable it might seem at this point, it is an option that no longer can be ruled out.

    There are other local options in the making. Still, if the government can manage the suspension of TikTok, which had over 100 million users in India, it can surely tackle Twitter’s exit, which has a far lesser number of users in India.

    Twitter versus Government of India

    Interestingly, Twitter’s CEO, in an elaborate thread, post-suspension of Trump’s account, stated that they had opted for this extreme step given the best information they had based on threats both on and off Twitter.

    Therefore, the question begs that now with another instance of violence on the Red Fort and the repeated requests from the highest corridors of the government, why is Twitter not willing to take any action?

    The thread also highlighted the prevailing offline harm due to online speech, and it was claimed that Twitter’s policy and enforcement were driven by the same principle.

    Yet, Twitter India has chosen to go silent on the government’s requests.

    By repeatedly rejecting the requests of the government, Twitter has cornered itself, and from here, it will only test the patience of the government, unless it chooses to act responsibly.

    The same government banned scores of Chinese apps, some with more active users than Twitter. The citizens also migrated to other platforms with ease.

    Thus, no platform in India is indispensable. What is indispensable is the law of the land, and Twitter must stop taking it lightly.

    Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_

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