Digital rights experts feel any face-off between India and the social media company could emerge as a global “test case.”
Options before the government include lodging an FIR (first information report) against the platform under Section 69A (3) of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Section 69A also empowers the government to suspend a platform in national interest and for public order. Over 200 Chinese apps have been blocked under this section last year.
Facebook and Google’s YouTube have “proactively” complied with similar requests from the ministry of electronics & IT (MeitY), “with Twitter being the only exception,” according to officials aware of the matter.
“There is a serious law and order situation in the country, and with the revelation of the toolkit, it is clear that there is involvement of international syndicates and countries like Pakistan to fuel the tension. Who is Twitter to decide what is free speech?” an official said.
Twitter did not provide details of whether it has complied with the latest order, but a company representative told ET that it continues to engage with the government from a position of respect, and that it has reached out to Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad for a formal meeting or dialogue.
India is the third-largest market for Twitter, with 18.9 million users as of October, according to data platform Statista.
Since last week, the government has sent a set of two orders to the platform — requesting it to block some 1,400 handles — as well as a notice warning of dire consequences in case of non-compliance. Twitter has neither complied with nor replied to the government notice so far, according to one official privy to developments.
“We want to raise an international debate on whether democratically elected governments have a say in this or will Big Tech companies, in the name of freedom of expression, decide what the national discourse will be,” said the person, drawing a parallel with the Australian government’s recent actions to rein in Google.
A Twitter spokesperson said “an acknowledgement to the receipt of the non-compliance notice has been formally communicated. We review every report we receive from the government as expeditiously as possible and take appropriate action regarding such reports while making sure we hold firm to our fundamental values and commitment to protecting the public conversation.”
“…We strongly believe the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact, and that the tweets must continue to flow,” the person added.
On January 31, MeitY asked Twitter to block 257 accounts, following it up with a request on February 4 to block a further 1,178 accounts alleged to belong to Khalistan sympathisers or backed by Pakistan. Many were bots used to amplify misinformation and provocative content on the farmers’ protests. Twitter complied with the first order by suspending the accounts temporarily, before releasing them in the name of “free speech.”
Sources aware of the thinking within Twitter told ET that it is incorrect to assume that the company has not complied with the government’s order. There is a difference between the two government orders, they said. While the first was issued under emergency powers, the second was issued as per Section 69A.
Twitter routinely gets such blocking orders from the government, which are reviewed under its internal policies. And, while some are adhered to, others are left unimplemented, the people said.
However, officials maintain that as an intermediary, it is binding on Twitter to follow government requests. “If they have this understanding (that Twitter can only comply with blocking requests that are in accordance with their policies) then it is completely flawed. It is not an NGO; it is a business entity that has to respect the laws of the land where it operates, and not just operate under its own policies,” the official said.
Internet policy experts are of the view that if Twitter’s social media rights are tested in India, it will be a big development globally, as there is already uproar over the microblogging platform’s actions with regard to the account of former US President Donald Trump.
“In case Twitter refuses to comply with the (Indian) government’s order, it should take responsibility for content on its site just like publishers do and not seek protection under the intermediary rules,” said one expert.
“It can’t enjoy the convenience of both,” the person said, adding that “India will become a test case of sorts since this debate is already fuelling up.”
A Twitter spokesperson referred to a statement that said the US firm is guided by principles of transparency and empowering the public conversation. “If we receive a valid legal request about potentially illegal content on Twitter, we review it under both, Twitter rules and local law,” said the spokesperson.
“If the content violates Twitter’s rules, it will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter rules, we may withhold access to the content in the location only. In all cases, we notify the account holder directly, so they’re aware we’ve received a legal order pertaining to the account. Our goal is to respect local law while protecting our foundational principles of free expression,” the person said.
Internet Freedom Foundation has expressed concern over the lack of transparency from both, the government as well as Twitter, in blocking access to user accounts. “The secrecy and lack of a clear process is concerning if directions are indeed under Section 69A. From news reports, no show cause notice or opportunity to present a defence has been provided to users. Twitter did not even notify most accounts about their access being withheld,” the digital rights lobby noted.
“…We urge the ministry to recall directions for blocking Twitter accounts and in the future, commence proceedings by providing a fair and clear opportunity to account users to participate and present their defence. Eventual orders under Section 69A must be made publicly available,” the think tank wrote on the platform on Monday.
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