The Indian government neither shut down Twitter’s services nor raided its executives’ homes during the 2021 farmers’ protests, said the IT Ministry in a parliamentary reply tabled last week.
This marks yet another government denial of Twitter Founder Jack Dorsey’s controversial allegations on its actions against the microblogging platforms during the protests. In a detailed rebuttal last month. India’s Minister of State for IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar described Dorsey’s claims as an “outright lie…perhaps an attempt to brush out that very dubious period of twitters [sic] history.”
“India, for example, is a country that had many [content takedown] requests for us around the farmer’s protests, around particular journalists that were critical of the government,” Dorsey said in an interview with the YouTube channel “Breaking Points with Krystal and Saagar” posted on Twitter last month. “It manifested in ways such that we were shut down in India, which is a very large market for us. [The government said] ‘We will raid the homes of your employees,’ which they did. [The government also said] ‘We will shut down your offices if you don’t follow suit’”. With a hint of a smile he added, “This is India, a democratic country.”
Responding to the question by Rashtriya Lok Dal Rajya Sabha MP Jayant Singh, the IT Ministry added that Twitter had been directed to block 3,750 URLs between August 2020 and December 2021 under Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000. Twitter did not block 167 of these URLs, after which it was served a notice on June 27th, 2022, to either comply, or face penalties for non-compliance. The platform subsequently complied with the remaining Section 69A blocking orders.
Section 69A gives the government powers to block public access to online information on grounds like sovereignty, security, and public order, among others. Non-compliance leads to up to seven years of jail time and a fine. The government has been repeatedly criticised for failing to follow Section 69A’s in-built checks and balances—leading to opaque and secretive content blocking at the cost of free speech online.
The Ministry further clarified that it didn’t request Twitter for user account data, and that it doesn’t maintain such data.
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Was Twitter ever ‘shut down’, or raided?: In 2021, Twitter temporarily lost its safe harbour protections for failing to comply with the government’s platform regulation rules, the IT Rules, 2021. The platform eventually complied with the rules three months later. Safe harbour laws protect platforms from being held liable for the third-party content they host, provided they comply with applicable IT laws in India.
As for the raid claims, in May 2021, the Delhi Police visited the platform’s India offices over a complaint challenging its decision to label tweets circulated by the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party’s politicians as ‘manipulated media’.
Is this the end of Twitter’s tryst with challenging free speech restrictions in India?: In July 2022, the platform challenged 39 Section 69A orders on free speech grounds, criticising the government’s opaque approach to content blocking. The Karnataka High Court dismissed the censorship petition a few weeks ago, upholding the constitutionality of the orders which sought to block content by journalists, activists, among others. The platform was also fined Rs. 50 lakh.
Twitter has since changed hands—current honcho and free speech ‘absolutist’ Elon Musk seems reluctant to continue challenging free speech mandates in India. Responding to a question on Dorsey’s comments last month, Musk said, “Twitter doesn’t have a choice but to obey local governments. If we don’t obey local government laws, we will get shut down…and our people will be arrested. One cannot just apply America to Earth, because there are different laws and forms of governance. We’ll do the best to provide the free-est speech that is possible under law”.
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