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India Twitter standoff puts spotlight on free speech

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
February 15, 2021

An ongoing tussle between the Indian government and Twitter over digital content regulation has drawn global attention to the threats facing freedom of expression in India.

A man reads tweets by Indian celebrities, one of the many backing the Indian government
A man reads tweets by Indian celebrities in support of PM Narendra Modi's governmentImage: Manish Swarup/AP/picture alliance

Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in Parliament last week that social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn would have to follow the Indian Constitution.      

He warned the platforms of "strict action" if they were "misused to spread fake news and fuel violence."

"We respect social media a lot. It has empowered common people. Social media has a big role in the Digital India program. However, if social media is misused to spread fake news, violence, then action will be taken," said Prasad.

The statement comes against the backdrop of growing tension between the Indian government and Twitter about the company's refusal to fully comply with orders to remove certain accounts that were critical of the government's handling of ongoing farmer protests following changes to agriculture policy.

Twitter recently suspended hundreds of accounts in India at the request of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, which has been trying to contain protests by clamping down on demonstrators' online activity.

But the company stopped short of complying with 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."

Twitter's decision to not remove certain accounts has unnerved the government, which has also served the company with a noncompliance notice and threatened its officials with a fine and imprisonment of up to seven years for violating the order.

Modi's strong-arm tactics?

Critics have accused Modi's government of using the massive demonstrations as an excuse to escalate a clampdown on free speech and silence opponents.

Media reports suggest that the government has drawn up draft rules to regulate social media, streaming services and digital news content, which will include a code of ethics and a mechanism to report inappropriate content and ask for its removal. The proposed rules haven't been made public.

"Twitter feeds a larger ecology of digital media. This is because the platform is the default social network for political leaders and foreign governments to make statements," Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, told DW. "I feel an undemocratic provision of the law is being applied. There is arbitrariness." 

The cyberlaw expert Pawan Duggal told DW that the government's decision to invoke Section 69A of the IT Act was unusual and Twitter did not want to be complicit in censorship.

"How can you have a 19th-century mindset to solve a 21st-century problem? Blocking handles or tweets is outdated. There has to be a better idea and a balance has to be struck," Duggal told DW.

On Saturday, Indian police arrested environmental activist Disha Ravi for creating a guide to the ongoing protests by farmers
On Saturday, Indian police arrested environmental activist Disha Ravi for creating a guide to the ongoing protests by farmersImage: twitter.com/Disha__Ravi

Arresting and threatening activists

The farm protests have drawn more traction in recent weeks after international celebrities weighed in, with tweets from pop star Rihanna, environmental activist Greta Thunberg and Meena Harris, the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, about the internet shutdown, the arrests, the deaths of farmers and the concrete barriers set up by the police around Delhi.

The government released an official statement calling these tweets propaganda.

On Saturday, Indian police arrested a 22-year-old environmental activist, Disha Ravi, for creating a guide to the ongoing protests by farmers that was tweeted by Greta Thunberg in early February.

A police statement said Ravi was a "key conspirator in the document's formulation and dissemination."

The "toolkit" document shared by Thunberg encourages people to sign a petition that condemns the "state violence" against the protesters.

It also urges the government to listen to the protesters rather than mock them. It mentions different hashtags to use on Twitter to support the protests. Additionally, it asked for people worldwide to organize protests near Indian embassies or and domestically at government offices on February 13 and 14.

Activists and human rights campaigners stage a demonstration against the arrest of Disha Ravi
Activists and human rights campaigners stage a demonstration against the arrest of Disha RaviImage: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images

Fighting for free speech?

Twitter, for its part, will "continue to advocate for the right of free expression."

"We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter and strongly believe that the tweets should flow," a company blogpost said.

"We do not want to comment publicly on the posts that were asked to be banned by the government. We are in dialogue," a senior executive of the US company told DW on condition of anonymity.

India is among the five countries that accounted for 96% of the global legal requests for removing digital content in 2020; Japan, Russia, South Korea and Turkey were the others.

According to Twitter's transparency report, the company received nearly 5,900 requests from the Indian government for access to the personal information of users between January 2012 and June 2020.

After the row between the government and Twitter, several Cabinet ministers joined the rival made-in-India app Koo and requested people to follow them.

On Friday, India's Supreme Court asked for the government and Twitter's response to a petition seeking greater regulation of content on social media platforms amid a debate over free speech. The court is expected to rule after getting responses from the government and Twitter.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11