Twitter, challenging content removal orders, sues Indian government

Twitter said on Tuesday it had sued the Indian government, challenging a recent order to remove content and block accounts in the country.

The lawsuit, filed in the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore, follows a government threat of criminal action against Twitter executives if they fail to comply with the order, the company said.

The company had been given a Monday deadline to block the view of dozens of accounts and posts in India. He complied, but then sought legal redress.

The Indian government has urged Twitter to follow the rules. “It is everyone’s responsibility to abide by the laws passed by the parliament of the country,” Ashwini Vaishnaw, minister of electronics and information technology, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Twitter’s lawsuit follows a separate lawsuit by WhatsApp, also pushing back against the country’s tough new internet rules, which WhatsApp has described as oppressive.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party have worked for several years to rein in the power of tech companies and tighter control of what is said online, and they have used new laws on information technology to suppress dissent. . Twitter, for example, has been told to remove content related to complaints about civil liberties, protests, press freedom and criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic. WhatsApp had been told that it would be necessary to make people’s private messages “traceable” to government agencies upon request.

Additionally, the new rules required social media companies to employ India-based executives to ensure companies complied with government requests to take down content and block accounts. If this did not happen, these leaders could be held criminally responsible, facing prison terms of up to seven years.

Twitter has previously criticized the government’s tactics and called on it to respect freedom of expression. The company said Indian laws were being used “arbitrarily and disproportionately” against the company and its users, many of whom are journalists, opposition politicians and non-profit groups.

Last year, WhatsApp petitioned the Delhi High Court to block the applicability of the people’s message traceability rule. The government said of the WhatsApp case that the right to privacy is not “absolute and is subject to reasonable restrictions”.

This case is still pending.

The lawsuits are part of a growing battle between the biggest tech companies and governments around the world over which of them has the upper hand. Australia and the European Union have drafted or passed laws to limit the power of Google, Facebook and other companies over online speech, while other countries are trying to curb companies’ services to stifle dissent and quell protests.

Experts say the Indian government’s decision to force Twitter to block accounts and posts amounts to censorship, at a time when the government is accused of weaponizing a vague definition of content it finds offensive to s take on the critics.

In February 2021, the company permanently blocked more than 500 accounts and moved an unknown number of others out of sight in India after the government accused them of making inflammatory remarks about Mr Modi. Twitter said at the time that it was not taking action on the accounts of journalists, politicians and activists, saying it did not believe the orders to block them “are in accordance with Indian law”.

In May that year, Indian police raided the offices of Twitter after the company decided to label tweets by politicians from Mr Modi’s party as “manipulated media”. These tweets attacked members of the opposition who had used the platform to criticize Mr Modi and what they called his government’s stumbling response to the pandemic.

And in recent weeks, New Delhi police arrested Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of a major fact-checking website, over a 2018 tweet that shared an image from an old Bollywood movie. The government said the image was causing community discord, after a Twitter account with just a few followers and a single tweet complained about it and tagged Delhi police – before the account disappeared shortly afterwards .

Last week, Twitter was ordered to block tweets from Freedom House, a US nonprofit that cited India as an example of a country with declining press freedom.

“It shows how an international report on India’s press freedom rankings is handled through censorship, rather than debate and discussion,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “It is an undemocratic and authoritarian response.”

Lawyers and tech experts say Twitter and other social media companies are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are bound to abide by the laws of the land, but they also challenge them to uphold freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy.

“I think they are fighting a losing battle because on the one hand they are taking the government to court, but on the other hand they tend to give in,” Salman Waris, a lawyer at TechLegis, told New Delhi. who specializes in international technology law.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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