On Monday, Twitter temporarily prevented people in India from viewing multiple reports from activists, political commentators, a popular movie star, and a leading investigative journalism magazine, Caravan, under orders from the country’s government. All the reports had one thing in common: they had criticized the nationalist Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. Twitter restored the accounts more than six hours later, notifying government officials that the tweets and accounts represented freedom of speech and were current.
The move comes during a crackdown on dissent in India and raises questions about the role American tech companies are playing there. In recent weeks, the Indian authorities have launched incitement to hatred against prominent journalists for reporting peasants’ protests against the Modi government. Over the weekend in New Delhi, India’s capital, police arrested two journalists, one of whom is still in custody.
Last week, calls to “shoot” protesting farmers raged for hours on Twitter as thousands of tweets encouraging police brutality flooded the platform.
In addition to the caravan, the most famous accounts that Twitter has temporarily blocked in the country also included those who tweeted about updates to the farmers’ protests.
“Caravan officials believe that Twitter’s decision to withhold our official account is the latest in a long list of targeted attacks targeted on the publication to fearlessly follow important stories,” said Vinod K. Jose , Editor-in-chief of the magazine, and one of the journalists charged with sedition last week, told BuzzFeed News.
After returning to Twitter, the caravan tweeted, “Our account has been restored. It is now more clear than ever that real media need real allies. We thank our readers, subscribers, and contributors for their tireless support. “
In a statement, Twitter said: “Many countries have laws that may apply to tweets and / or Twitter account content. In our efforts to make our services available to people everywhere, it may be necessary from time to time to deny access to certain content in a particular country when we receive a proper request from an authorized body. Transparency is critical to protecting freedom of expression. Therefore, we have a notification policy for withheld content. Upon receipt of the request to withhold content, we will notify the account holder concerned immediately (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 US, when it receives “a valid and proper request from an authorized body,” according to the company’s website. These tweets or accounts are usually visible in the rest of the world. The company claims to “notify affected users immediately unless we are prohibited from doing so,” and publishes the inquiries on Lumen, a Harvard University project.
But people whose accounts were temporarily suspended in India said Twitter did not notify them before taking action.
“They didn’t contact me before cracking down on my account,” Sanjukta Basu, a political commentator whose account was withheld by Twitter, told BuzzFeed News.
Jose said Twitter did not notify the magazine before the account was suspended and did not hear from the company until an hour after the suspension. “Twitter did not reveal where the legal removal request came from,” he said.
BuzzFeed News learned that the legal system 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 prevents companies like Twitter from sharing information to disclose the suspension of an account or a tweet. The IT ministry declined to make an official statement.
Twitter confirmed the orders were from India’s IT ministry, but said they would not be uploaded to the Lumen database because the accounts had been unlocked.
The company is caught between local laws and global human rights standards.
“Internet platforms must ensure that all actions they take in response to governmental orders to remove content are in accordance with international human rights standards,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international lawyer and director of Asia-Pacific politics at Access Now. a non-profit internet advocacy group. said BuzzFeed News. “You should challenge orders that go overboard or that are specifically designed to prevent media organizations from reporting.”
This can even mean temporarily taking measures that seem unthinkable in other countries – measures that have led to harsh criticism.
“Can you imagine @twitter consolidating the New York or Atlantic account after a legal letter?” tweeted Nicholas Dawes, city editor-in-chief and former director of Human Rights Watch. “Applying human rights-based standards for content moderation on a global scale may be difficult, but it’s the job they signed up for.”