Twitter sues India’s government over its control of online speech

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Twitter had filed a lawsuit against the government of India in the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore, challenging a recent decree that ordered Twitter to take down content and block a number of accounts. Twitter initially obeyed the order, then filed the suit; a source told the Times that Twitter isn’t trying to invalidate the laws under which the order was issued, but instead “argues in its suit that the government interpreted those laws too broadly.” A TV network in New Delhi reported that the suit alleges the order was “overbroad, arbitrary, and disproportionate,” and that the content in question is either political commentary, criticism, or otherwise newsworthy, and therefore should not be removed.

It’s not known which specific tweets or accounts are the subject of the order, in part because India’s laws forbid platforms from talking about the takedown orders they receive, the content they refer to, or the reasons for the order. Last year, the Indian government ordered Twitter to remove tweets by Freedom House, a US-based nonprofit that promotes democracy around the world. The group noted that internet freedom was declining in India, and included maps whose borders the government of India disputes. Tweets from Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist, and Mohammed Zubair, the cofounder of a fact-checking organization, have also been subjected to similar orders, as have posts from accounts belonging to a number of political parties and groups.

Other blocked accounts allegedly made “fake, intimidatory, and provocative tweets” that some took to be accusing the Indian government of planning a genocide. In a number of cases, Twitter simply blocked access to tweets for users within India, using what it calls its “country withheld” tool, a form of geo-blocking. Last February, after initially refusing a government order, Twitter removed more than five hundred accounts that had posted critical comments about the Indian government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and used geo-blocking to hide others. At the time, Twitter said it refused to remove any accounts belonging to journalists, politicians, or activists because it believed doing so “would violate their fundamental right to free expression.”

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Twitter’s comments led many to believe that the company planned to fight some of the provisions of the Indian laws that provide the foundation for such orders. Those laws include the Information Technology Act of 2000, which allows the government to block access to content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, and public order.” Early last year, the Indian government tightened its control of digital speech with the passing of the Information Technology Rules, a “Digital Media Ethics Code” that requires online news and information providers to take down content within thirty-six hours of receiving a government order and to assist law enforcement agencies with other such requests, among other conditions.

Under the code, “significant social media intermediaries”—online services that have more than five million users in India, a group that includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube—are also required to moderate certain kinds of offensive and illegal content, and can be compelled to identify the original poster of the content under certain circumstances. These intermediaries can receive “safe harbor” protection (similar to that provided under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the US), but only if they satisfy a number of other criteria, including having a staff member available in the country to handle such requests. The latter is sometimes called a “hostage law,” since it means local staff members can be fined, arrested, and even jailed if their employer refuses to comply with the government’s orders.

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According to a report from the Hindustan Times, Twitter’s recent lawsuit came about because the company received a letter from the Indian government detailing what it called “the serious consequences of non-compliance” with previous orders to remove tweets and accounts, consequences that could include “criminal proceedings against Twitter’s Chief Compliance Officer.” Twitter has reportedly received two similar noncompliance notices in the past, including one notice related to accounts and content about a farmers’ revolt in India, and one related to misinformation about covid-19. In May of last year, police visited Twitter’s offices in Delhi after the company labeled tweets by a politician from Modi’s party “manipulated media.”

In response to Twitter’s lawsuit, the Indian government urged the company to follow the rules, the Times reported. “It is everyone’s responsibility to abide by the laws passed by the country’s Parliament,” Ashwini Vaishnaw, the minister of electronics and information technology, said at a news conference. The Modi government maintains that the orders it sends to companies like Twitter are designed to crack down on misinformation and to quell disorder and violence. But some believe they have become a way for Modi and his party to crack down on dissent and free speech when users choose to criticize his government. Other social media platforms looking at India as a market for expansion will undoubtedly be watching the Twitter lawsuit with great interest.

Here’s more on Twitter and the law:

  • New rules: Twitter may push back on certain orders from the Indian government, but some believe the company has little choice but to comply if it wants to operate there. “The rules of the game have changed,” Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and founder of MediaNama, a tech-policy site based in India, told Rest of World. “Whatever Twitter may have blocked last year…the Indian government has since given itself the power to jail someone from Twitter if it does not comply with government orders. And that’s a risk very few companies, maybe no company, will be willing to take.”
  • WhatsApp: WhatsApp, the messaging service owned by Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has also sued the Indian government over its Digital Ethics Code. Last year, the service filed suit over the requirement that social platforms be able to identify who posted specific pieces of content. WhatsApp’s service is encrypted end-to-end, which means that even the company can’t see the content of messages sent between users. The company said in its lawsuit that requiring it to identify users who posted certain types of content “would severely undermine the privacy of billions of people.”
  • Nigeria: In January, the government of Nigeria lifted a ban on Twitter that had lasted for seven months. The ban was put in place after the service deleted a tweet posted by Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, which Twitter said violated its policy against abusive behavior; the Nigerian government said the service was banned because it was being used for “subversive purposes and criminal activities, propagating fake news, and polarizing Nigerians along tribal and religious lines,” according to Bloomberg. The ban was lifted after Twitter agreed to establish a legal entity in Nigeria, and to appoint a local representative to handle government requests when required.
  • The law: Elon Musk, who is still in the process of trying to acquire Twitter for $44 billion, posted a series of tweets earlier this year in which he tried to clarify his views on free speech and Twitter. “By free speech, I simply mean that which matches the law,” Musk wrote. “I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask governments to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.” It’s unclear how Musk would apply this principle in countries like India.


Other notable stories:

  • Boris Johnson, the prime minister of Britain, announced this morning that he is stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party in the UK, after more than fifty members of his government resigned en masse over the past two days. The BBC reported that Johnson plans to continue to serve as prime minister until a new leader of the Conservative Party is elected. “It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of the party and therefore a new prime minister,” Johnson said. However, some British MPs are saying Johnson needs to step down as prime minister immediately because he has lost the confidence of Parliament. (Jon Allsop has tracked recent media coverage of Johnson for CJR.)
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday that the US government should ensure that those responsible for the killing of Shireen Abu Akhleh—the Palestinian American journalist who was shot in March, apparently by Israeli forces—are held to account. “The U.S. should either take the lead in investigating Abu Akleh’s death in a fully credible and transparent manner, or it should support international efforts to seek justice on behalf of her and her family,” said Sherif Mansour, the CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.
  • China is censoring news of the alleged hacking of a massive Shanghai police database, the Financial Times reported. A hacker announced the leak in an online forum devoted to cyber crime late last month, and claimed that the file contains names, addresses, IDs, phone numbers, and criminal records of more than a billion Chinese citizens. “The alleged hack set Chinese social media abuzz for a brief period over the weekend,” the FT reported, “but by Monday microblogging network Weibo and Tencent’s WeChat had begun to censor the topic.”
  • White House communications director Kate Bedingfield, a longtime aide to Joe Biden, will depart the administration later this summer, White House officials said Wednesday, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. “Ms. Bedingfield has been one of Mr. Biden’s most loyal confidantes since his time as vice president under former President Barack Obama and has been among a core group of senior strategists who helped steer his winning 2020 presidential bid and guide the first 18 months of his administration,” the Journal wrote.
  • A group of more than twenty alternative digital media outlets have copublished a blog post and video arguing that “corporate media” should stop making ads for fossil fuel companies. The piece was created by Maria Bustillos, founder of Popula and a CJR contributor, and Alex Kotch from OptOut, a news service and app that includes alternative media sources. The story also included reporting from Amy Westervelt, the creator of Drilled, a podcast about climate change. The outlets that published it simultaneously include OptOut, Popula, Discourse, and Welcome to Hell World.
  • The British Army confirmed that it lost control of both its Twitter and YouTube accounts, according to a report from The Guardian. The Army’s account on Twitter appeared to have been hacked, with the name “BAPESCAN” instead of British Army, and a profile picture that featured a cartoon monkey. Its description had been changed from the original text about the account, containing news and information on deployments and training exercises, to “#1 metavesto clan on the ETH chain with multi-billion dollar experience. Powered by @chaintchlabs.” The Army said it was investigating the breach.
  • In an interview with the New York Times Insider blog, David Fahrenthold talked about his work, and why he thinks the world of nonprofit charities is prime territory for investigative reporting. Fahrenthold won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, while he was working for the Washington Post, for his reporting on the Trump Foundation’s misappropriation of charitable funds. “I thought, there is so much information out there about charities and they occupy such an important business and moral role in society, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of enforcement there,” Fahrenthold said.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.

TOP IMAGE: Indian para-military force soldiers stand next to placards on ground during a protest outside Twitter's office in New Delhi, India, Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. The protest was against Twitter temporarily locking Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi's account after he tweeted a photograph of him meeting the family of a Dalit girl who was allegedly raped before being killed. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)