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World

Indian government threatens Twitter with penalties, if it does not block accounts

  • In the aftermath of the online backlash against the Indian government's callous treatment of protestors, India has threatened to 'punish' Twitter if it does not comply with the government's request to restore a block on accounts connected to allegedly inflammatory tweets about farmers’ protests.
  • On Monday, Twitter blocked over 250 accounts, following a request by the Indian government, under the presupposition that the tweets could potentially 'incite' violence.
Published February 4, 2021
Source: Reuters
Source: Reuters
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NEW DELHI: In the aftermath of the online backlash against the Indian government's callous treatment of protestors, India has threatened to 'punish' Twitter if it does not comply with the government's request to restore a block on accounts connected to allegedly inflammatory tweets about farmers’ protests.

On Monday, Twitter blocked over 250 accounts, following a request by the Indian government, under the presupposition that the tweets could potentially 'incite' violence; singling out hashtags such as #ModiPlanningFarmersGenocide - which some Twitter users have used to draw attention to the government’s crackdown on protesters.

According to Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate (South Asia) at the Wilson Center, in an interview with Business Recorder, "It's certainly striking to see the Indian government threatening Twitter, especially given the perception that the two have a symbiotic relationship and that Twitter tends to do what New Delhi would prefer that it do".

The demonstrations have continued to persist for over two months, as farmers have protested against the Modi government's new farming laws; which could potentially impact a large segment of the government's support-base.

On the other hand, New Delhi has stated that the laws will help farmers and consumers by modernising the industry and streamlining the agricultural supply chain.

The blockage of accounts on Monday, which included respected (and verified) news organizations and political activists, triggered outrage on Twitter - with many referencing the move as a curtailment of their freedom of expression.

Twitter eventually conceded, and reversed the ban within the span of 12 hours, citing that the tweets under scrutiny should be permitted under the ambit of free speech, with the company adding that protecting public discourse and transparency was fundamental to the platform.

Providing context behind the original ban, Twitter stated that “If we receive a properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time", as India’s information laws empower the government to block online content deemed as disrupting public order.

Kugelman articulates that "One can cite here Twitter's track record of blocking abusive accounts that are critical of the government but not those supportive of the government. [However] in Pakistan, there has long been a perception that Twitter more broadly is friendlier to Indian accounts than Pakistani ones".

According to a government official, after Twitter's reversal of the ban, the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology demanded the company comply with its request, stating that subjects like genocide pose a threat to law and order, adding that "Twitter seems to be following a dual standard in India - will it promote a genocide hashtag in Europe or the U.S?".

In a formal notice to Twitter, the Ministry stated that the company has no "constitutional, statutory or legal basis to comment" on the country's statutory provisions, on the basis of its own limited private understanding of Indian laws.

More importantly, in the case of non-compliance from Twitter, the government has threatened to take action under the country's information technology laws, which could include anything ranging from a fine to up to seven years of incarceration for Twitter executives in the country, for not implementing the government's directives.

This week, the Indian farmers' protest gained even more traction and social media attention, as both pop-star Rihanna and prominent environmental activist Greta Thunberg tweeted about the matter.

Indian outlets have reported that an FIR has been lodged against Thunberg over her tweets in support of the farmers' protests, with theories being circulated that the international climate activist is aligned with a pro-Khalistan group - a Sikh separatist movement historically viewed with apprehension by the Indian state.

On the other end of the spectrum, Twitter also deleted two tweets by Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, one of which labelled the protesting farmers as "terrorists", citing a violation of the platform's terms and conditions.

With nearly 19 million users, Twitter is on the brink of potentially losing out on a lucrative (and expanding) market - similar to TikTok's eventual ban from the country - especially as the platform has become an essential hub for political discourse across the globe.

Referring to Twitter's emergence as an integral tool for narrative building in the digital space (especially in a political context), Kugelman added that "In India, like other countries in the neighbourhood, the number of Twitter users is relatively small as a share of the total population, but that small number of users tends to be influential, and New Delhi recognises that Twitter itself is a powerful tool to project its own messaging".

The platform has, more recently, executed decisions that have been seen as inconsistent with its prescribed policies, especially following the permanent ban on former President Donald Trump's widely-followed account - which the company's founder and acting Chief Executive Jack Dorsey describing the move as "setting a dangerous precedent".

In discussing the rationale behind the Indian government's somewhat aggravated response, Kugelman suggested that "It would be a mistake for New Delhi to be picking a fight with Twitter. Frankly, what we are likely seeing now is an Indian government surprised that Twitter is not cooperating more, as it usually would, and so it is acting out of frustration with these threats".

He concluded that despite the fact that there certainly was some objectionable content on Twitter surrounding the farmers' protests, "cracking down on dissent in this way is not going to help its [the Indian government's] cause. New Delhi's actions will only prompt more dissent, and it will squander more soft power.

As of Wednesday, Twitter has declined to comment on the matter.

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