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Twitter served notice to take down Goa environmental activists’ tweets

Photo by Divya Sahasrabuddhe

Twitter received a legal request on June 12 to take down tweets by environmental activists protesting the construction of a concrete wall at Vainguinim beach in Goa. Most of the tweets have the hashtag #SaveVanguinimBeach and tag the chief minister of Goa, Dr Pramod Sawant. We reached out to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, and have not received a response. Twitter and the Goa government did not respond to a request for comment either. Twitter generally receives such requests from the government or law enforcement, and it is unclear who approached them in this case. As of the time of the publication of the story, Twitter has not acted on the request, and the tweets remain visible.

According to a spreadsheet compiled by Aakash Madgavkar, one of the volunteers, sixteen of the 24 tweets have tagged Sawant, and all but one used the #SaveVainguinimBeach hashtag. Divya Sahasrabuddhe, another volunteer, said the group was seeking legal counsel on how to proceed. “In the interest of transparency, we are writing to inform you that Twitter has received official correspondence regarding your Twitter account. The correspondence claims that the following Tweet, is in violation of Indian laws,” Twitter said in an email to targeted users. “We have not taken any action on the reported content as a result of this request. Please note, we may be obligated to take action regarding the content identified in this complaint in the future,” the social media platform added.

Activists brought up the issue of a concrete wall on beach

The activists were drawing attention to a concrete barrier being constructed in the middle of Vainguinim beach, a small strip on the southern tip of Panaji. The barrier, which covers a major part of the thin beach’s backshore, is being built by Fomento Resorts and Hotels Limited, which reportedly claimed that the wall is an extension of their property, and that the barrier was being built to prevent erosion further inland. The Quint reported that the Goa Coastal Zone Management Authority has sent a notice to the hotel chain asking for their approval documents. Locals have complained that the wall undermines the strip’s value as a recreational area and that the construction is happening under the cover of lockdown restrictions in Goa.

MediaNama reviewed the tweets, and it is unclear what would attract a removal request from a public authority. It is not unprecedented for environmental activists to be censored this way without clear legal backing. Last July, Delhi Police ordered a domain registrar to take down the website of Fridays for Future, an environmental advocacy group, after the government accused it of flooding its email inboxes with messages opposing a proposed amendment to the Environmental Impact Assessment notification put out by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change earlier that year.

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No clarity on who sent the request

Twitter does not publicly disclose details of legal requests they do not act on, so information on this legal request is not available on the Lumen Database, where the company routinely files information on country-specific censorship. As such, it is hard to pinpoint where this request came from. All this comes as the government arm twists Twitter in public, casting doubt on its status as an intermediary, essentially complicating the social media platform’s freedom from liability for tweets posted by its users.

While some civil society groups like the Internet Freedom Foundation have argued that Twitter’s intermediary liability status will ultimately be decided by the courts, the company has not yet complied in full with requirements set out in the recently notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, exposing it to coercive action from law enforcement; that has already started happening, with Ghaziabad police lodging an FIR against the company for tweets by users that allegedly communalized an assault. Twitter India MD Manish Maheshwari has reportedly been summoned in the case.

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