When Tweets Seem to Trouble the Laws of the Land

The government-Twitter standoff stays on the boil. Let’s have a look at the incidents leading to the stalemate

When Tweets Seem to Trouble the Laws of the Land
When Tweets Seem to Trouble the Laws of the Land
Titlee Sen - 30 May 2021

The dispute between microblogging site Twitter and the Indian government does not seem to be going away. The government has slammed Twitter for violation of laws by allowing accounts to be unblocked that it had been ordered to prohibit. What began as a series of tweets about the recent farmer protest has turned into a debate about free speech and India’s judicial system.

A quick look at what happened since February 2021:

Block order: Following a notification from the IT ministry (MeitY) on January 31, the government prohibited 257 Twitter handles under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. The directive's specifics were not made public at the time, but the Act aims to safeguard the country’s security and sovereignty. After the discussion, the prohibited accounts, which included Kisan Ekta Morcha and The Caravan magazine’s Twitter handles, were unblocked. The flagged information was described as “free expression” and “newsworthy” by Twitter.

A warning: Following that, the authorities issued a warning to Twitter for reactivating the accounts in defiance of the government’s mandate. The government issued a warning to Twitter, urging it to follow the regulation and threatening legal action if it didn't.

The government has warned that if Twitter’s senior executives do not delete “objectionable and provocative information”, they might face a seven-year prison sentence. Mahima Kaul, Twitter's Public Policy Director for India and South Asia, also resigned, despite a statement claiming her departure had nothing to do with the current events.

On February 4, the government released a list of 1,178 more accounts it wants shut, saying they belong to Pakistani and Khalistani people who are threatening public order. According to reports, the authorities objected to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey "liking" a few tweets from overseas celebrities supporting the farmers' protest.

Counter view: In a statement, a Twitter representative stated, "If we get a valid legal request regarding potentially unlawful information on Twitter, we investigate it in accordance with the Twitter Rules and applicable local laws. If the content is found to be in violation with Twitter's Terms of Service, it will be deleted from the service. We may limit access to the material in the location only if it is considered to be unlawful in a particular area but not in violation of the Twitter Rules."

The statement added: "We contact the accountholder directly in all circumstances so they're aware we've received a legal order related to the account." The company's purpose is to respect local law and free expression, it emphasised.

Freedom of speech: On May 27, Twitter India said it will "strive to comply" with the law, but expressed worries about "police intimidation techniques" and a "possible harm to freedom of expression". The government slammed the statement, calling it "an attempt to impose its rules on the world's greatest democracy" and urging Twitter to stop "beating about the bush" and follow the law.

“Right now, we are concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve. We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules,” the spokesperson said.

The announcement comes only days after WhatsApp filed a complaint with the Delhi High Court, calling the new IT laws a violation of privacy.

Cops crack down: Twitter has already described the recent visit by Delhi Police to its headquarters as "intimidation" and expressed worry for its staff as well as the possible danger to freedom of expression. Twitter said it will continue to be guided by principles of transparency and protecting freedom of expression in its first official statement after the Delhi Police visited the company's offices in Delhi and Gurgaon to serve notice to its country managing director as part of its investigation into the 'manipulated media' tag.

The Delhi Police claimed on Thursday that Twitter's remarks about the current investigations into the 'toolkit' issue are "mendacious" and intended to obstruct the legitimate investigation and gain "dubious sympathy."

It further said that Twitter claims to be both an investigative and adjudicating authority, although having no legal jurisdiction to do so. According to the statement, the police are the only legal agency that can investigate and the courts are the only legal institution that may adjudicate. Twitter has also been accused by the Delhi Police of "fear mongering" through "misguided and unsubstantiated" tactics.

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