Twitter launches legal challenge in India over content blocking orders

The social media company has been going through a tough time in India since last year, spending months locked in a high-stakes standoff with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government over freedom of speech.
At one point, the company was even the target of a handful of police investigations. Twitter (TWTR) called them “bullying tactics” and said he was “concerned” about the safety of its employees in the country. But, to the disappointment of free speech campaigners, he chose not to press charges against the government.

So far.

The San Francisco-based company filed a petition in the High Court of Karnataka, a state in southwestern India, on Tuesday, according to a list reviewed online by CNN Business.

Twitter declined to comment on the matter.

But a source familiar with the matter said the company had decided to challenge some government orders because they “demonstrate an excessive use of powers and are disproportionate”.

In the past, authorities have asked Twitter to remove posts critical of the Modi government, including its handling of the brutal second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the country last spring.

“Authorities target people for content posted online and regularly bully web platforms and social media services into complying with its censorship,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international lawyer and policy director for Asia-Pacific at the digital rights advocacy group Access Now.

Chima and other free speech advocates have accused the government of trying to censor journalists, protest groups and opposition lawmakers with its blocking orders, which are rarely made public.

“Today, Twitter is standing up for the people and doing what the government should be doing: protecting our rights,” he added.

India’s technology ministry threatened Twitter last month with “serious consequences,” including criminal charges against its executives, if the company failed to comply with the agency’s orders to remove certain tweets and block posts. accounts, the source said.

Although the company blocked access to the content in India at the moment, he is seeking judicial review of some of the orders. The company believes they violate the country’s technology laws and threaten free speech, according to the source.

The Department of Electronics and Information Technology did not respond to a request for comment. But India’s junior IT minister, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, said in a Tweeter Tuesday that foreign internet platforms “have [a] right to a tribunal and to judicial review”, in India, without mentioning Twitter.

He added that all platforms operating in the country “have [an] unambiguous obligation to comply with our laws and rules.”

High stakes showdown

Twitter’s lawsuit is the latest showdown in a growing contentious relationship between Silicon Valley tech companies and one of their biggest markets. India’s ruling party has stepped up its crackdown on social media and messaging apps since last year.

Last year, U.S. tech companies repeatedly voiced concerns that the country’s tech rules could infringe on privacy, usher in mass surveillance and hurt businesses in the world’s fastest-growing digital market. world. India says it is trying to maintain national security.

The rules, which were published in February 2021, include requirements for tech companies to create special compliance officers in India. There are also requirements for the services to remove certain content, including posts that feature “full or partial nudity.”
Additionally, tech platforms should trace the “first sender” of messages if authorities so request. This requirement forced WhatsApp – detained, as Facebook (Facebook), by Meta – to file a legal complaint against the government in May last year. WhatsApp said the request would break the platform’s “end-to-end encryption” and fundamentally undermine people’s right to privacy.

The case is ongoing, a company spokesperson told CNN Business on Wednesday.

Twitter previously clashed with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology early last year over accounts the agency wanted to take down during a series of farmer protests. Twitter granted some of the demands but refused to take action against the accounts of journalists, activists or politicians.

Twitter also raised concerns about IT rules last year and said it planned “to advocate for changes to elements of those regulations that impede free and open public conversation.”

In its lawsuit this week, Twitter did not challenge India’s technology law, but said the government’s blocking orders were “disproportionate in several instances”, according to the source.

Indian free speech activists welcomed the move on Tuesday. Many of them had said last year that they felt disappointed by Twitter’s inability to take a strong stand against the government.

Still, some believe the company could have gone further.

“They narrowly challenged the Indian government’s orders in these specific cases, instead of challenging the Indian government’s lack of accountability that the IT law allows,” said Nikhil Pahwa, founder of Delhi-based tech website MediaNama.

“Twitter had the opportunity to do a lot more and they failed to make meaningful and substantial changes,” he added.

— Swati Gupta and Esha Mitra contributed to this report.

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