On Monday, Twitter temporarily blocked people in India from viewing several accounts belonging to activists, political commentators, a popular movie star, and a leading investigative journalism magazine, the Caravan, on orders from the country’s government. All accounts had one thing in common — they had been critical of India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi. Twitter restored the accounts more than six hours later, telling government officials that the tweets and accounts constituted free speech and were newsworthy.
The move comes during a crackdown on dissent in India and raises questions about the role that American technology companies play there. In the last few weeks, authorities in India have filed sedition cases against prominent journalists for reporting on farmers’ protests challenging the Modi government. Over the weekend, police in New Delhi, India’s capital, arrested two journalists, one of whom is still in custody.
Last week, calls to “shoot” protesting farmers trended for hours on Twitter, as thousands of tweets encouraging police brutality flooded the platform.
Some of the most prominent accounts that Twitter temporarily blocked in the country included those that tweeted updates from the farmers’ protests, in addition to the Caravan.
“The staff at the Caravan feels that Twitter’s decision to withhold our official account is the latest in a long list of targeted attacks that have been mounted on the publication for pursuing important stories fearlessly,” Vinod K. Jose, the magazine’s executive editor, and one of the journalists who had sedition charges filed against him last week told BuzzFeed News.
After the Caravan returned to Twitter, it tweeted, “Our account has been restored. Today more than ever, it is clear that true media needs true allies. We thank our readers, subscribers and contributors for their unwavering support.”
In a statement, Twitter said: “Many countries have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to people everywhere, if we receive a properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time. Transparency is vital to protecting freedom of expression, so we have a notice policy for withheld content. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content, we will promptly notify the affected account holders (unless we are prohibited from doing so e.g. if we receive a court order under seal).”
Twitter withholds tweets and accounts, including in the United States, if it receives “a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity,” according to the company’s website. These tweets or accounts are typically visible in the rest of the world. The company says that it “promptly notifies affected users unless we are prohibited from doing so,” and publishes the requests on Lumen, a Harvard University project.
But people whose accounts were temporarily blocked in India said that Twitter hadn’t notified them before taking action.
“They did not get in touch with me before taking action against my account,” Sanjukta Basu, a political commentator whose account Twitter withheld, told BuzzFeed News.
Jose said that Twitter did not notify the magazine before blocking the account, and only heard from the company an hour after the block. “Twitter did not disclose where the legal removal demand came from,” he said.
BuzzFeed News learned that the legal order came from India’s IT ministry under a section of the law that allows the government to order the removal of content deemed a threat to national security, and which prevents companies like Twitter from disclosing information about the blocking of an account or a tweet. The IT ministry declined to issue an official statement.
Twitter confirmed that the orders came from India’s IT ministry, but said that it would not upload them to the Lumen database since the accounts had been unblocked.
The company finds itself caught between local laws and global human rights standards.
“Internet platforms need to ensure that any actions they take in response to government orders on content removal respect international human rights law standards,” Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and Asia Pacific Policy director at Access Now, a nonprofit internet advocacy organization, told BuzzFeed News. “They should contest orders that are overboard, or which explicitly seek to suppress media organizations from reporting.”
That can mean, even temporarily, taking actions that would seem unthinkable in other countries — action that led to sharp criticism.
“Can you imagine @twitter summarily yanking the account of the New Yorker or the Atlantic following a legal letter?” tweeted Nicholas Dawes, executive editor of the City and a former director at Human Rights Watch. “Applying human rights based standards for content moderation at global scale may be hard, but it’s the job they signed up for.”