NEW DELHI (INDIA) – Twitter Inc is currently at the centre of a political firestorm after refusing to comply with an Indian government directive to block more than 250 accounts and posts.
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 Narendra Modi’s administration and USsocial media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp.
The controversy comes soon after Twitter’s top lobbyist in India resigned. Government officials, business people and ordinary netizens are split over free speech and the US company’s compliance practices.
Twitter has high stakes in India, 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.
Though Twitter initially complied, it later restored most of the accounts, citing “insufficient justification” to continue the suspensions. The technology ministry warned the company 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. A LinkedIn ad showed the company is seeking candidates for the key government relations position.
Twitter confirmed Kaul’s resignation, saying she would stay on through March and was helping with the transition. It said this week that it withholds access to content on receiving a “properly scoped request from an authorized entity”.
Free speech activists are of the opinion that government should not attempt to use legal provisions to curb freedom of expression, while others argue Twitter should comply or go to court.
“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.
This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey became a talking point on Indian TV news after he liked a tweet suggesting the company should consider introducing a farmer protest emoji.
In 2019, a parliamentary panel headed by a lawmaker from Modi’s Hindu nationalist party warned Twitter after Dorsey failed to appear before the committee. The previous year Dorsey sparked a social media storm after a picture of him holding a poster saying “smash Brahminical patriarchy”, referring to the highest Hindu caste, went viral.
Meenakshi Lekhi, a lawmaker from 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 said . “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.”