Indian Government Threatens To Jail Twitter Employees For Restoring Accounts The Government Wants Blocked
from the watch-out-what-you-ask-for dept
We keep pointing out to people the very slippery slope that happens when we say it’s okay for the government to tell websites how they have to moderate. And what’s happening in India is a very important case study. As you’re hopefully aware, there have been ongoing farmer protests in India, as farmers are quite upset about regulatory changes that they fear will destroy their businesses. The protests have been going on for weeks, but things have recently escalated to include some violence.
Prime Minister Narendra Mohdi is responding to all of this in a similar fashion to what he’s done before: by cracking down on free speech and going after his critics. It started with full internet blackouts in places where the protesters were, with the government claiming it was necessary to cut off the internet to “maintain public safety” (yeah, right). Then, the government demanded that Twitter block the accounts of various journalists, publications, and celebrities who have been critical of Mohdi. Twitter complied, but after widespread criticism, it turned those accounts back on, apparently telling the Indian government that the tweets were protected free speech and newsworthy.
One of the accounts that had been taken down was the Caravan, a small but influential investigative journalism outfit that is widely read among politicians. A writer for Caravan, Vidya Krishnan, has a chilling account in The Atlantic about how this crackdown represents “the end of the Indian Idea.” It’s well worth reading. It notes that beyond just having the Twitter account shut down, the Mohdi government has arrested a Caravan writer and begun an investigation of its editors.
These latest attacks, part of a pattern of legal cases, personal threats, and intimidation against news outlets and individual journalists, make certain what was becoming evident: The freedom of the press, a constitutional right, is endangered in Modi?s India. The brazen use of social-media networks to censor journalists, the use of the police and courts to silence them, and, more fundamentally, the belief that those who report on protests are somehow undermining the state illustrate how much has changed in India, and how far the country has strayed from its founding ideals.
On Tuesday, the situation became an even more dangerous attack on free speech. It appears that Mohdi’s administration is not at all happy with Twitter’s decision to push back and re-enable the accounts it demanded blocked. It is now threatening Twitter employees with jailtime and fines for the decision.
On Tuesday, the IT ministry sent a notice to Twitter, ordering it to block the accounts once again. It also threatened people who work at Twitter’s Indian arm with legal consequences, which could include a fine or a jail term of up to seven years.
?This is really problematic,? said Nikhil Pahwa, editor of MediaNama, a technology policy website, and an internet activist. ?I don?t see why the government of India should wade into this territory of trying to censor tweets when they have much bigger problems to deal with.?
When we point out situations like this, in which the government would abuse such power, we often have people say that we’re being ridiculous and such power wouldn’t be abused in the US (if it was somehow even deemed allowed under the 1st Amendment). But as that Atlantic article points out, India has freedom of expression in its Constitution as well.
And even if you believe in American exceptionalism (which you probably shouldn’t) and that it would be okay if the law were changed in the US, but not elsewhere, just note that countries like India (and many others) would use such a law in the US as an excuse for why their own crackdowns on free expression are in accordance with US norms.
And, of course, this puts Twitter in a somewhat impossible spot. If it does what everyone knows is the right thing morally and ethically, and refuses to suspend these accounts, it faces a difficult future in the country. Its own employees may be thrown in jail and fined. India has already been not just blocking the internet, but many Chinese apps such as TikTok. I would not put it past the Mohdi government to declare a block on Twitter. Of course, if the company caves in and takes the content back down, then it raises significant moral questions about how it may be supporting the crackdown on free speech, a free press, and on protesters in India.
It is easy to argue that Twitter should continue to take this stand and do the morally right thing, but it’s much easier to do it as a nobody typing words on a computer screen than as someone actually making the very real call which could have widespread consequences for many, many people.