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Twitter blocks some accounts flagged by MEITY, exploring legal options to keep others up

*Update (1:25 pm, February 10):

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) said that the government will soon share its response to Twitter blogpost, it said on the indigenous micro-blogging platform Koo.

“Upon the request of Twitter seeking a meeting with the Govt., the Secretary IT was to engage with senior management of Twitter. In this light a blog post published prior to this engagement is unusual. Govt. will share its response soon.” MEITY statement on Koo, dated February 10, 2021

Koo is a social media platform that was developed in early 2020 to compete with Twitter. It won the government’s Atmanirbhar App Innovation Challenge alongside other Indian apps like Zoho and Chingari, the local version of TikTok. In light of the latest spat between Twitter and the government, prominent government officials, politicians and government departments have joined Koo in the last few days.

These include: Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, Law & IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and Members of Parliament such as Tejasvi Surya and Shobha Karandlaje. The Union IT Ministry, India Post and the Niti Aayog are some of the government entities with accounts on Koo.

Earlier: Twitter Inc. has suspended 500 accounts that were engaged in “platform manipulation and spam”, it said in a blogpost on Wednesday. The micro-blogging platform stopped short of blocking other accounts as taking action against accounts belonging news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians would be a violation of their fundamental right to free expression, it said.

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Twitter and Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) are now engaged in a battle between ‘freedom of expression, speech and press’ and the government’s powers to block internet content to safeguard ‘public order’. The micro-blogging platform had received an order from the MEITY earlier this week to block 1,178 accounts on the platform, that were allegedly spreading misinformation and posed a threat to public order.

On January 31, the platform received a Section 69A order to block 257 accounts and 1 hashtag related to the ongoing farmer’s protest. While Twitter initially blocked the accounts, it reversed the block on the grounds that they constituted ‘free speech. The MEITY in response sent Twitter a notice stating that it would take action against the company as it was an “intermediary” operating in India and therefore, had to comply with the government’s order.

In its blog post, Twitter said that over the last 10 days it has been served with multiple blocking orders by MEITY under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. “Out of these, two were emergency blocking orders that we temporarily complied with but subsequently restored access to the content in a manner that we believe was consistent with Indian law. After we communicated this to MEITY, we were served with a non-compliance notice,” it said.

While Twitter has held back on blocking many accounts listed in the IT Ministry’s order, the ministry believes that under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 it has powers to ‘pre-emptively’ block accounts and specific tweets.

“We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve. We are exploring options under Indian law — both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted. We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter, and strongly believe that the Tweets should flow.” Twitter said

Timeline of events

  • The IT ministry passes an interim order on the afternoon of January 31, 2021 to block 257 URLs and one hashtag for allegedly spreading misinformation about the ongoing farmer protests, supposedly with the potential to lead to violence.
  • Twitter allegedly sits on the order for nearly a full day, then only imposes block on February 1. By the time Twitter’s advocate appears before the blocking committee, the handles and hashtag were allegedly blocked for only a few minutes.
  • Twitter unblocks accounts on evening of February 1.
  • Twitter replies to MEITY’s orders on February 1, declining to abide by order, saying that it had freedom of speech implications.
  • On February 2, MEITY sends a notice to Twitter over non-compliance with its blocking orders.
  • MEITY sends another order with a list of 1,178 accounts to be blocked on February 4
  • Twitter blocks 500 accounts, refuses to block others on grounds of ‘free expression’

Actions taken by Twitter

Ever since violence erupted in the national capital, particularly on January 26th where protestors occupied the Red Fort area, Twitter has been proactively stepping up its efforts to enforce its rules and defend its principles in India, it said. “Twitter exists to empower voices to be heard, and we continue to make improvements to our service so that everyone — no matter their views or perspective — feels safe participating in the public conversation,” the company said. It took the following actions over the last 10 days:

  • Took action against hundreds of accounts that violated Twitter Rules, particularly threats related to inciting violence, abuse and threats
  • Censored specific terms that violated its rules from appearing in the Trends section
  • Suspended 500 accounts that were engaged in platform manipulation and spam
  • n the highest potential for real-world harm
  • Labelled Tweets that were in violation of our synthetic and manipulated media policy
  • Reduced visibility of hashtags containing harmful content
  • Permanently suspended more than 500 accounts as per the MEITY’s multiple orders

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