The Indian government has threatened to punish Twitter employees with fines and up to seven years in prison for restoring hundreds of accounts that the company has ordered to be blocked. Most of the reports were critical of the country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.
On Monday, Twitter complied with the government’s order, preventing people in India from seeing more than 250 reports from activists, political commentators, a movie star and The Caravan, an investigative news magazine. Most of the reports had criticized Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, and his government. However, the company restored the accounts about six hours later after a Twitter attorney met with officials from the IT department, arguing that the tweets and accounts represented free speech and were current.
India’s government disagreed. On Tuesday, the IT ministry sent a notice to Twitter ordering the accounts to be blocked again. It also threatened people working in the Indian arm of Twitter with legal ramifications that could include a fine and up to seven years in prison.
“This is really problematic,” said Nikhil Pahwa, editor of MediaNama, a technology policy website and internet activist. “I don’t see why the Indian government should go into this area to try to censor tweets when they have much bigger problems.”
A Twitter spokesman declined to comment. An IT ministry spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The move puts the company in a difficult position. Re-freezing the accounts would mean being accused of playing an active role in an ongoing crackdown on dissent in India as anti-government protests rage the nation. Leaving the accounts on the platform, however, means risking a political and legal showdown in a large market.
In the statement sent on Tuesday, the government said the reports “spread misinformation about protests” and “have the potential to lead to imminent violence that is undermining public order in the country.” BuzzFeed News has reviewed a copy of the notice.
The duel comes days after thousands of Indian farmers, who have been protesting for months against agrarian reforms that they say will affect their incomes, broke police barriers and stormed the Red Fort, a Mughal memorial in New Delhi, on January 26th , India’s Republic Day. At least one protester has reportedly died. The Delhi police denied their involvement in the incident.
In the notice, the government alleged that the accounts used a hashtag that “induced people to commit identifiable crimes relating to public order and the security of the state”.
Although the caravan did not use this hashtag, the government claimed that “news and press reports” spread misinformation, “incited people” and created “a public order situation”.
A caravan spokesman told BuzzFeed News that its journalism was fair and professional. “We don’t understand why the Indian government suddenly realizes that journalists shouldn’t speak to all pages of an issue,” the magazine’s editor-in-chief Vinod K. Jose told BuzzFeed News.
India’s laws forbid Twitter from sharing the legal system it received on Monday, but the company was struggling, according to the government’s release on Tuesday. This document claims that Twitter did not put the accounts on hold until 24 hours after the first order was received, and it did so just minutes before a Twitter attorney met with government officials on Tuesday.
“It is clear that the offensive tweets / hashtags remained in the public domain and must have been tweeted and re-tweeted several times at the risk and expense of public order and at the risk of inciting criminal offenses,” the statement said.
According to the notice, Twitter also sent a response to the government after meeting with officials who refused to comply with and obey the government’s order. Under Indian law, Twitter is required to meet the requirements.
The government also rejected Twitter’s free speech argument, saying the company had no “constitutional, legal or legal basis” to interpret what constitutes free speech under Indian law.
Twitter had also argued that there was “insufficient justification” to block entire accounts, saying the government should have ordered the blocking of individual tweets. In response, the government statement said it was not Twitter’s place to seek justification from the government.
At the heart of the legal system is Section 69A, an article in Indian IT law in which the federal government calls on platforms such as Twitter to “withhold any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in a computer resource” and the “public “Could interfere with orders.” Platforms like Twitter not only have to comply with these orders, they are also not allowed to publish them publicly.
“I hope this case goes to court,” said Pahwa, founder of MediaNama, “because I believe that the government is rationally likely to lose the case.”