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Twitter suspends 'harmful' accounts in India

February 10, 2021

The social media giant has partially complied with an order from Indian regulators by blocking "harmful content," but has not suspended Twitter accounts belonging to journalists, activists and politicians.

An Indian man holds up his phone, with the screen displaying the Twitter logo
Image: Diptendu Dutta/AFP

Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts in India on Wednesday at the request of the government, which has been been trying to contain  ongoing protests by farmers by clamping down on demonstrators' online activity. 

The company claimed in a statement that it was targeting users who were spreading "harmful content" in clear violation of policy. 

The social media giant stopped short of regulators' demands to block accounts that belonged to activists, politicians and journalists, arguing that such a move would "violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.'' 

Backlash against Twitter 

Last week, Twitter temporarily blocked hundreds of accounts, including some belonging to news websites and activists.

Indian regulators had demanded Twitter block users tweeting about ongoing farmers' protests, calling it a "grave threat to public order" as the demonstrations began to gain more traction on social media. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government called for suspending more than 1,000 accounts and posts, claiming that they disseminated false information about the protests and India's agricultural laws.

Twitter subsequently restored access to the accounts following public backlash. This, however, caused Indian regulators to serve it with a noncompliance notice that threatens executives with jail time and fines. 

The platform's partial compliance on Wednesday seeks to "reduce visibility of hashtags containing harmful content," while permanently suspending some accounts, and restricting access to others only within India. 

Rights groups condemn India's crackdown

The protests have opened a row between Twitter and India's Hindu nationalist government. The government has been trying to counter a monthslong protest movement led by farmers unhappy about new agricultural policy. 

The demonstrations have started to receive international attention, including from US celebrities. Human rights organizations also called on the government to address violations.

Rights group Amnesty International said that Indian authorities arrested several journalists and charged them with inciting riots and misreporting.

Amnesty said on Twitter that it was calling for the government to stop the clampdown on protesters.

The UN Human Rights office also raised concerns over the escalating situation in India.

"We call on the authorities and protesters to exercise maximum restraint in ongoing Farmers Protests. The rights to peaceful assembly and expression should be protected both offline & online. It's crucial to find equitable solutions with due respect to human rights for all,” the UN Human rights office said on Twitter.

What are the protests about? 

Since November, tens of thousands of people have rallied against India's newly introduced agricultural laws, which they said would put them at a vulnerable position with big corporations.

'We want to show Modi our strength'

But India insists that the new laws will boost the farming sector, with softer rules on storage and marketing of produce and promoting private investment. 

The protests were largely peaceful, until hundreds of protesters and policemen were injured in January when demonstrators stormed Delhi's historical Red Fort.

People have primarily rallied and camped in protest in the northern parts of India, but the protests have since spread over more states.  

fb,wmr/dj (AFP, AP, Reuters)