Twitter’s India snub sparks debate on ‘Big Tech’ compliance and free speech

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Twitter’s refusal to comply with an Indian government directive to block more than 250 accounts and posts has put the controversial social media company at the centre of a firestorm in one of its key markets, India.

Indian government officials, notable business people and ordinary netizens are split over free speech and the US company’s compliance practices, in a controversy that comes soon after Twitter’s top lobbyist in India resigned.

The showdown, after the firm this week “declined to abide (by) and obey” the order to remove posts and accounts that the government said risked inciting violence, is the latest instance of worsening relationships between Prime Minister Modi’s administration and American-based social media platforms like Facebook and its WhatsApp messenger.

For Twitter, the stakes are high in a country of 1.3 billion where it has millions of users and is ardently used by Modi, his cabinet ministers and other leaders to communicate with the public.

Farmers are conducting a growing protest against new agriculture laws, with tens of thousands camping out on the outskirts of New Delhi and launching a nationwide road blockade on Saturday.

As the prolonged crisis escalated, the government this week sought an “emergency blocking” of the “provocative” Twitter hashtag “#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide” and dozens of accounts.

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Twitter initially complied but later restored most of the accounts, citing “insufficient justification” to continue the suspensions. The technology ministry warned the company, in a letter seen by journalists, of legal “consequences” that could include fines or jail, saying the government was not required to justify its demand to ban accounts.

Twitter’s public policy director Mahima Kaul recently resigned from her role, two sources said. A LinkedIn ad showed the company is seeking candidates for the key government relations position.

Kaul did not respond to a request for comment.

Twitter confirmed Kaul’s resignation, saying she would stay on through March and was helping with the transition, but otherwise declined to comment. It said this week that it withholds access to content on receiving a “properly scoped request from an authorized entity”.

‘NOT LAWMAKERS’

Free speech activists say the government should not attempt to use legal provisions to muzzle freedom of expression, while others argue Twitter should either comply or fight it out in court.

“Playing with fire.”

“Twitter is playing with fire,” said an Indian social media executive who was surprised by the company’s non-compliance. “If there is a legal request, you are required to take down content. You are free to challenge it” in court.

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In 2019, a parliamentary panel headed by a lawmaker from Modi’s Hindu nationalist party warned Twitter after its Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey failed to appear before the committee, as requested.

This week, Mr Dorsey became a talking point on Indian television news after he liked a tweet suggesting the company should consider introducing a farmer protest emoji.

Meenakashi Lekhi, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Modi’s party who heads a parliamentary panel on data privacy, criticised Twitter for disobeying government orders, adding she has yet to decide whether to summon company executives.

“Twitter needs to understand they are not lawmakers,” Lekhi told journalists at our partner news agency Reuters.

“It is not their policy which will work, it is the policy of the state, country which will work.”

Calling the showdown “inevitable”, the Hindu newspaper said in a Friday editorial: “Provocative posts have no place on any platform, (but) free speech should not be hit.”

Prasanth Sugathan of Software Freedom Law Center India, said, “The selective government approach to ask social media companies to ban content when it doesn’t suit the official narrative is problematic.

“It stifles free speech and press freedom.”

Comment: One of the recurring themes of the past couple of years is governments becoming nervous about the data, reach and power of the leading social media businesses. Clashes between governments and ‘Big Tech’ was always going to escalate and we expect to see considerably more litigation, legislation and enquiry into the leading players.

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Worth remembering that these organisations are young… but (in many ways) have more power than politicians to shape the nations Overton window, policy and opinion. Who should control the discourse? Perhaps nobody.

The team at Platform Executive hope you have enjoyed this news article. Translation from English to other languages via Google Cloud Translation. Initial reporting via our official content partners at Thomson Reuters. Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal and Aditya Kalra. Editing by William Mallard. Commentary by Rob Phillips.

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