Twitter & India Still Arguing Over Whether Or Not Twitter Accounts Supporting Farmer Protests Need To Be Removed
from the mass-censorship dept
Last week we wrote about the Indian government threatening to jail Twitter employees after the company reinstated a long list of accounts that the government demanded be blocked (Twitter blocked them for a brief period of time, before reinstating them). The accounts included some Indian celebrities and journalists, who were talking about the headline news regarding farmer protests. The Mohdi government has proven to be incredibly thin-skinned about negative coverage, and despite Indian protections for free expression, was demanding out-and-out censorship of these accounts. The threats to lock up Twitter employees put the company in an impossible position — and it has now agreed to geoblock (but not shut down) some accounts, but not journalists, activists and politicians.
The company implies, strongly, that the demands from the Indian government deliberately mixed actual incendiary/dangerous content with mere political critics of the Mohdi administration — and makes it clear that it’s willing to take action on “harmful content” or accounts that legitimately violate Twitter’s rules. But that it will not agree to do so for those whose speech it believes is protected under Indian freedom of expression principles:
- We took steps to reduce the visibility of the hashtags containing harmful content, which included prohibiting them from trending on Twitter and appearing as recommended search terms.
- We took a range of enforcement actions ? including permanent suspension in certain cases ? against more than 500 accounts escalated across all MeitY orders for clear violations of Twitter?s Rules.
- Separately, today, we have withheld a portion of the accounts identified in the blocking orders under our Country Withheld Content policy within India only. These accounts continue to be available outside of India. Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law. We informed MeitY of our enforcement actions today, February 10, 2021. We will continue to maintain dialogue with the Indian government and respectfully engage with them.
Later that day, after Twitter made this announcement, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) set up a call with Twitter officials and released an incredibly lame press release, effectively saying “we support freedom of expression, but not when protesters say stuff we don’t like.”
Secretary told the Twitter representatives that in India, we value freedom and we value criticism because it is part of our democracy. India has a robust mechanism for protection of freedom of speech and expression that is very elaborately explained as Fundamental Rights under Article 19 (1) of the Constitution of India. But freedom of expression is not absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions as mentioned in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India. Various judgments of the Supreme Court have also upheld this from time to time….
Secretary took up the issue of using a hashtag on ?farmer genocide? with Twitter executives and expressed strong displeasure on the way Twitter acted after an emergency order was issued to remove this hashtag and content related to that. Spreading misinformation using an incendiary and baseless hashtag referring to ?farmer genocide? at a time when such irresponsible content can provoke and inflame the situation is neither journalistic freedom nor freedom of expression as envisaged under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. Despite the attention of Twitter being drawn to such content by the Government through a lawful process, the platform allowed the content with this hashtag to continue, which was extremely unfortunate.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the MeitY tries to insist that farmers protesting are somehow the equivalent of Trumpist insurrectionists storming the Capitol:
Secretary reminded Twitter about the action taken by Twitter during the Capitol Hill episode in the USA and compared that with the disturbance in Red Fort in India and its aftermath. He expressed dissatisfaction over Twitter?s differential treatment in the two incidents. A deep sense of disappointment at seeing Twitter side not with ?freedom of expression? but rather with those who seek to abuse such freedom and provoke disturbance to public order, was conveyed to the Twitter representative.
Of course, this seems incredibly misleading. Remember, Twitter did remove content that actually advocated for violence, and diminished the reach of certain other accounts. The ones it left up were reporters, activists and politicians.
Bizarrely, most of the reporting on this is presenting it as if Twitter “caved” to India’s demands. But that does not appear to be what happened at all. Yes, Twitter did block or limit some accounts, but clearly chose to leave up many more. Earlier reports suggested the government demanded 1,100 accounts, but Twitter only limited 500. Now, there are reasons to be concerned when a government demands (and gets) the removal of any accounts, but it seems clear that Twitter is not just immediately complying with all such demands, and is pushing back in more than half of those accounts — which is why the MeitY apparently is still quite angry about all of this.
Still, for American politicians looking to push incredibly short-sighted bills that will put more pressure on websites to remove accounts, just look at how such things will (1) be abused and (2) used by foreign governments to justify and defend outright censorship.