India Is Stifling Kashmir Journalists And Twitter Is Helping Get The Job Done

from the this-isn't-helping dept

India has expressed an interest in being considered a top-tier totalitarian state. Not content to let nearby nations claim all the glory in the “Terrible Places to Live” race, India has been stepping up its censorship and its domestic surveillance, presumably in hopes of being the next country to claim a coveted UN blacklist spot.

The Indian government has asked third party contractors to help it build a massive surveillance network utilizing thousands of cameras and the current cream of the facial recognition crop at the time of deployment. The whole thing needs to be in place less than 8 months after the contract is secured, suggesting the government is more than happy to move forward with whatever it has on hand rather than whatever might actually do the job well.

It’s also climbing the global censorship charts, trailing only Russia, China, and Turkey in various social media platform demographics. But it is the king of Facebook censorship, delivering more takedown demands to Facebook than closest rival, Russia. When you’re out-censoring Russia, you’re playing the censorship game right.

Disputed areas the Indian government claims, but doesn’t actually control, are only encouraging further censorship from the Indian government. Unfortunately, US tech companies are helping the government maintain control of the narrative by silencing dissenting voices. Kunal Majumder of the Committee to Protect Journalists has more details:

On August 10, 2018, the Indian government informed Twitter that an account belonging to Kashmir Narrator, a magazine based in Jammu and Kashmir, was breaking Indian law. The magazine had recently published a cover story on a Kashmiri militant who fought against Indian rule. By the end of the month, Indian police had arrested the journalist who wrote it, Aasif Sultan, and Twitter had withheld the magazine’s account in India, blocking local access to more than 5,000 tweets. As of October 2019, Sultan was still in prison, facing terrorism-related charges that CPJ has repeatedly condemned. And the @KashmirNarrator Twitter account was still withheld throughout the country.

There has been almost no improvement over the past year. CPJ reports the government’s Kashmir-targeted blackout has only been partially listed. To prevent Kashmir-sympathetic reporting from reaching the territory’s residents, the Indian government shut down the region’s connection to the outside world by cutting off its internet and phone connections. Some mobile phones have been able to route around the government’s blockade, but targeted Twitter accounts remain blocked in the region and journalists have been smuggling out reporting using USB sticks.

Since Twitter is one of the best platforms for spreading news quickly, the Indian government has focused its efforts on this platform. It’s following in the footsteps of Turkey and President Recep Erdogan by increasing its targeting of Twitter users. Twitter, unfortunately, has been super-helpful.

A CPJ analysis of those notices reveals that hundreds of thousands of tweets blocked in India since August 2017 under the company’s country withheld content policy were shared by accounts that focus on Kashmir. Among dozens of accounts that were withheld, CPJ identified several besides @KashmirNarrator that were sharing news and opinion, raising serious questions about what safeguards are in place to ensure freedom of the press and the free flow of information.

There are few safeguards built into Indian law. The minimal protections the country allows are not being extended to contested areas the Indian government feels are not deserving of speech protections. Twitter could simply refuse to honor these requests targeting dissenting views, but it has chosen to comply with India’s demands, most likely because the country is home to nearly a billion potential users.

If there’s any upside to this, it’s that the government’s targeting appears to be more keyword-based rather than content-based.

CPJ analyzed every account involved, whether the request was based on a single tweet, several tweets, or the account itself, reviewing more than 400 in total. Around 45 percent of those accounts mentioned Kashmir in the handle or bio, or had recently tweeted about Kashmir, according to CPJ’s review.

This censorship is damage that can be routed around. If Kashmir is one of the keywords sought by Indian censors, removing this word might allow links to reporting to sneak past censors. It also appears Twitter is only blocking in certain regions of the country, so tweets and accounts are still visible as long as Twitter believes viewers aren’t in the affected areas.

That being said, Twitter’s compliance is still problematic. Twitter is unwilling to discuss how it applies local laws to tweets and accounts targeted by governments with track records of stifling dissent. The legal options it has available are generally left unexplored. It makes a certain amount of sense in terms of the bottom line. Challenging foreign rulings and takedown notices requires money and man hours Twitter may not necessarily have to spare. The potential userbase in India is too large to ignore, which means it’s probably too large to be considered expendable when principles are on the line.

US tech companies aren’t doing all that great dealing with competing interests on a worldwide scale. While some concessions can be excused under the theory that some connection is better than nothing, assisting governments in censorship of critics and journalists isn’t acceptable, no matter how much market share is at stake.

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Comments on “India Is Stifling Kashmir Journalists And Twitter Is Helping Get The Job Done”

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Anonymous Coward says:

some connection is better than nothing

the theory that some connection is better than nothing

News from just a few days ago: “India shuts down internet in Aligarh on eve of 70-year Ayodhya land dispute verdict, NetBlocks, Nov 8, 2019

Network data from the NetBlocks internet observatory confirm that India has cut internet access in in the city of Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh . . .

Why has India shut down internet access in Aligarh?

Although India does not implement nationwide shutdowns, the country routinely implements targeted regional internet restrictions to deal with a variety of social and political contexts citing the British colonial-era Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 “in the interest of public safety and for maintaining public order.”

 . . .

What is the extent of the internet shutdown?

Technical data indicate that the regional internet shutdown in Aligarh is has significant but not total impact, affecting locally operated residential and wireless networks and excluding government networks. . . .

Anonymous Coward says:

Partially "liSted"

CPJ reports the government’s Kashmir-targeted blackout has only been partially listed.

LiSted? or LiFted?


Some older news from NetBlocks: Update: 14 October, 2019

Update: 14 October, 2019: Mobile traffic data from Kashmir indicate the partial return of cellular connectivity on day 71 of the ongoing internet shutdown, as some users report post-paid packages have started working. However, fixed-line internet, wifi and most mobile connections remain cut

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Break out the sledgehammer, you're not quite obvious enough yet

Because nothing says ‘We are absolutely not an oppressive tyrannical government that cannot defend our actions on their merits’ like cutting off communications in an area to keep people from talking to each other and those outside the area, getting news in and out, and all the other little tidbits that internet access provides.

As for Twitter, while this may make sense financially it also means they have basically zero moral standing or grounds to claim that they support free speech, as at best they are amoral, simply following whatever those in power tell them to do, and if that happens to silence dissent against an authoritarian government so be it.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Break out the sledgehammer, you're not quite obvious enough

I get what Tim is saying, but one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. With "reporting" including propaganda targeting individuals and groups for violence (start with the dog-whistling British right wing press*), it’s hard to make a choice about what to suppress in the hope of prevent atrocities and what to allow in the interest of journalism and free speech, etc.

We’re mean to each other online here in the West. This sometimes results in doxxing and SWATting, among other (occasionally dangerous) inconveniences, but it pales in comparison to people hacking other people to death and sticking it up on YouTube, then calling for more violence against THEM.

That the divisions we’re seeing now were created and fomented by the British in the course of their empire-building seems to have escaped the population; they just hate, and when they hate, they kill. If you read the link above, you’ll notice that counter-speech results in harsh reprisals for "siding with the enemy." Prime Minister Modi is exacerbating this because Boogeyman Politics is powerful and effective against a population that has anger issues already due to poverty and overcrowding. With an immortal Boogeyman and an unlimited supply of scapegoats you can only imagine the carnage that would be unleashed if Kashmiri (and other) rebels continue to provoke India.

I don’t like suppressing speech. People should behave themselves. While these two statements are mutually exclusive, expect more repression in the name of security, law, and order.

Sorry, I don’t have an answer to this but it’s not as cut and dried as ‘"Let Kashmiri rebels celebrate their rebellious acts in the media, thereby encouraging others to join in" to promote free speech.’

And no, for the record, I don’t expect the daily parade of atrocities to stop if India succeeds in shutting down dissenting speech from Kashmir. I guess I’m just pleading for a bit more nuance in discussing the subject. It’s an Indian problem and Western solutions will not work.

*[Judges are the] enemies of the people, crush the saboteurs, etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: geography [was Break out the sledgehammer...]

… Kashmiri (and other)…

Quick map link, for anyone not totally familiar with the geography on the other side of the world:

(The measured straight line distance, 435.18 miles , 700.36 kilometers, is not really important. The linked map is just a quick way to show the geographical relationship between the city of Aligarh in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh relative to Jammu and Kashmir.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Break out the sledgehammer, you're not quite obvious eno

… they just hate, and when they hate, they kill…

It’s an Indian problem and Western solutions will not work.

If, here in America, I happen to encounter a H1B visa worker from India, I usually don’t worry that they’re just naturally going to “go postal”.

Should I be? Is it just something about those people?


See, to tell the truth, just between you and me, I normally tend to think of postal workers as more like Cliff from Cheers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

            … Reporters using sticks…


“… a trope adapted from the durable radio show Major Bowes Amateur Hour. Most of the performers took the gong with sheepish good grace, but there were exceptions. Barris would then ask the judge(s) in question why they had gonged the act.”  —Wikipedia: The Gong Show

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:


This site seems to be experiencing technical difficulties with free speech.

The First Amendment says the government can’t interfere with your speech. Techdirt has no such restriction. It also has no legal, moral, or ethical obligation to provide you with a platform or an audience. Don’t like it? Stop complaining and start a platform on which you refuse to moderate speech.

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