Twitter has challenged the Indian government for the first time over its increasing control over social media in the world’s largest democracy.
A person with knowledge of the matter confirmed to VICE World News that the San Francisco-based company is seeking a judicial review of government orders to take down tweets and user accounts in India, Twitter’s third-largest user base, after only the U.S. and Japan.
The government has demanded that the platform remove what observers say are posts critical of the Indian authorities. Violation of these orders could lead to criminal prosecution of Twitter’s Indian employees or even jail time. Twitter was reportedly given until July 4 to comply with the rules or face “significant consequences.”
Twitter has applied for a judicial review at the high court in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, the source said.
The social media giant has faced legal pressure from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government ever since his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2021 passed an information technology law that gives the government more power over internet platforms. The law allows the government to block a wide range of content on defence and security grounds. It also criminalises violations of these orders, which companies must keep confidential.
The face-off between Twitter and the BJP escalated after the government ordered Twitter to censor over a thousand tweets and accounts of those supporting India’s massive farmers’ protests in February last year, and then posts critical of the government’s handling of COVID-19’s deadly second wave two months later in April.
Apar Gupta, an Indian lawyer and the executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation, said the rules created a climate of anxiety among activists, human rights advocates and journalists around their online activities.
“This is due to the fact that criminal laws are being used indiscriminately to pursue legal prosecutions against people who post about politics, religion, and so on,” he told VICE World News.
Last month, the Indian government ordered Twitter to remove posts by international watchdog Freedom House about India’s declining internet freedom. Then, last week, police arrested Mohammed Zubair, a prominent fact checker who monitors hate speech and is a vocal critic of Modi’s government, for four-year-old tweets that police claim stirred “hate mongering”.
He had posted screenshots of a 40-year-old Bollywood film depicting a hotel that changed its name from “Honeymoon Hotel” to “Hanuman Hotel” in Hindi (Hanuman is a Hindu monkey god), which was perceived as an insult by some members of the country’s Hindu majority.
In March, the Indian ministry of electronics and information technology said that censorship of Twitter accounts should only be done as a last resort. But the source familiar with Twitter’s judicial review application called some of the orders the company received “arbitrary” and “disproportionate” and that blocking accounts was an “abuse of power.”
Following reports of Twitter’s filing, India’s information technology minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, said all companies should abide by Indian laws.
“Wherever needed, we will take all steps to make social media more accountable,” Vaishnaw said.
Some observers have labelled India’s social media crackdown as “hostage-taking laws,” legislation adopted by governments to exert greater control over social media platforms. One of India’s key requirements for social media platforms is to hire a chief compliance officer, who has to be located in the country and is liable for all compliance-related issues, failing which the person can be criminally prosecuted, fined and jailed for up to seven years.
A 2021 transparency report released by Twitter revealed that India was the single largest source of government takedown requests in the second half of 2020—accounting for 25 percent of the global volume. The compliance rate for these requests was 0.6 percent in India, as opposed to 30 percent globally.
Gupta, of Internet Freedom Foundation, said the figures highlight the “censorial environment” in India.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.