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Twitter suspends more India accounts amid free speech debate

February 10, 2021 GMT
A man reads tweets by Indian celebrities, one of the many backing the Indian government, on his mobile in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. It took just one tweet from pop star Rihanna to anger the Indian government and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, after she tweeted about the farmer protests that have gripped India. Critics say the government has used the massive demonstrations to escalate a crackdown on free speech, detaining journalists and freezing Twitter accounts. Hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts, including those of news websites, activists and a farmers’ union, were suspended on Monday. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
A man reads tweets by Indian celebrities, one of the many backing the Indian government, on his mobile in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. It took just one tweet from pop star Rihanna to anger the Indian government and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, after she tweeted about the farmer protests that have gripped India. Critics say the government has used the massive demonstrations to escalate a crackdown on free speech, detaining journalists and freezing Twitter accounts. Hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts, including those of news websites, activists and a farmers’ union, were suspended on Monday. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

NEW DELHI (AP) — Twitter said on Wednesday that it has suspended some Indian accounts after it was served with several blocking orders by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology over the past 10 days related to massive farmer protests.

The social media company said in a blog post that the accounts will continue to be accessible outside India. None of the suspended accounts belonged to journalists, news organizations, activists or politicians, as doing so “would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law,” it said.

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The company said such an action would also go against its “principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression.”

The move comes after Twitter temporarily blocked hundreds of accounts last week, including those of news websites and activists. Online outrage ensued soon after, and the company subsequently restored access to those accounts, prompting the Indian government to serve it with a non-compliance notice.

The clampdown on Twitter accounts comes as thousands of farmers have camped outside New Delhi for over two months in a protest against new agricultural laws they say will devastate their earnings. The government says the laws will boost production through private investment. Critics say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has used the demonstration to escalate a crackdown on free speech.

The largely peaceful rallies turned violent on Jan. 26 after a group of farmers veered from an agreed protest route and stormed New Delhi’s 17th century Red Fort. Hundreds of police and farmers were injured in clashes.

In an order to Twitter last week, the government identified a number of accounts it said used provocative hashtags to spread misinformation about the protests as well as incite violence. The government invoked an information technology law under which it has the power to direct online intermediaries and internet service providers to block certain content without providing any explanation. It threatened Twitter officials with a fine and imprisonment of up to seven years for violating its order.

Pawan Duggal, a cyberlaw expert and Supreme Court lawyer, said the government’s response to Twitter was a “19th century mindset to deal with a 21st century problem.”

“India does not have a dedicated regulatory law on social media. This gives the government a legal position to use other information technology laws to regulate social media and initiate criminal action against those who violate its orders,” Duggal said.

He said Twitter had the right to go to court, the “best remedy available to them at the moment.”

In its blog post, Twitter said it has taken steps to “reduce the visibility of the hashtags containing harmful content” by preventing them from trending on the platform. It also said it has acted against over 500 accounts, including permanently suspending some of them, for violating Twitter’s rules.

“We will continue to maintain dialogue with the Indian government and respectfully engage with them,” the company said.

But Twitter’s statement appeared to irk the government, which tweeted later Wednesday that the company had earlier reached out to the IT ministry for a meeting. “In this light a blog post published prior to this engagement is unusual,” the ministry said, adding that the government would respond soon.

While India ranks second in the world in terms of mobile internet subscribers, the country leads in shutdowns, which are used regularly to thwart protest movements, according to Top10VPN, a U.K.-based digital privacy and security research group.

The shutdowns have mainly targeted anti-government demonstrations, particularly against a discriminatory citizenship law in 2019 and the ongoing farmers’ protests that have rattled the Modi administration. In some cases, governing party leaders have said the shutdowns were needed “in order to maintain public safety.”

The government has proposed social media regulations that would give it more power to police online content.