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The battle with Twitter The Excelsior 22 Feb 2021
Post the launch of a hashtag titled ‘farmer genocide’ the Indian government, on 31st Jan, approached twitter and asked it to delete 257 accounts stating that these were ‘spreading misinformation’ and possessed the potential of ‘leading to imminent violence affecting public order in the country.’ On 04 Feb, the government sent another list of 1200 accounts, demanding that Twitter either suspend or block them in India. These accounts were flagged by security agencies as accounts of Khalistan sympathizers or backed by Pakistan. However, Twitter did not comply with the order.
On 08 Feb, Twitter responded by claiming that that it reviewed every report that it had received and took appropriate action while making sure that the platform held onto its fundamental values and commitment to protect ‘public conversation.’ A Twitter communique stated that it had ‘suspended more than 500 accounts and withheld a portion of accounts identified in blocking orders.’ It also stated that it has taken no action against accounts of news media entities, journalists, activists and politicians.
They attempted to reach the Indian IT Minister, Mr RS Prasad, for a formal dialogue, which he refused. Ultimately, the issue was discussed with the IT Secretary, Ajay Sawhney. On behalf of Twitter those who participated included Monique Meche, Vice President Global Public Policy and Jim Baker, Deputy General and Vice President Legal. India highlighted the difference in behaviour of Twitter when it came to India and US issues.
In Jan, when violence broke out in Washington, Twitter announced, ‘more than 70,000 accounts have been suspended as a result of our efforts, with many instances of a single individual operating numerous accounts,’ adding, ‘these accounts were engaged in sharing harmful QAnon-associated content at scale and were primarily dedicated to the propagation of this conspiracy theory across the service.’ This difference in approach of twitter concerning India and the US angered the Indian government.
Post the meeting with the IT secretary, Indian officials stated, ‘Despite the attention of Twitter being drawn to such content by the Government through a lawful process, the platform allowed the content with this hashtag to continue, which was extremely unfortunate. A deep sense of disappointment at seeing Twitter side not with freedom of expression but rather with those who seek to abuse such freedom and provoke disturbance to public order, was conveyed to the Twitter representative.’ The warning to Twitter had gone, along with the intent to arrest Twitter officials based in India for refusing to accept directives from the Indian government.
Twitter is solely a multinational concern and a service provider and like many others in India. It can never be above the elected government in the country, where it is permitted to operate. It has no right to act on its own, despite being a multinational with a global reach, and bypass rules and regulations of the host country. The Indian government never signed any agreement with Twitter giving it a carte blanche on determining its own regulations on what should be permitted or blocked. It entered India for profit, not to provide service as an NGO. It therefore cannot legally deviate from government directives.
The government warned Twitter when it stated, ‘Twitter is free to formulate its own rules and guidelines. But Indian laws which are enacted by the Parliament of India must be followed irrespective of Twitter’s own rules and guidelines.’ Twitter has a high following in India. As per reports, there are 17.5 million on its platform in the country. It is also used as a major platform by the government to communicate with the public. It earns revenue from advertisements on the site.
Koo, an Indian version of Twitter, launched last year, has begun gaining a foothold in the country. A report of last week stated that approximately 10 Lakhs are joining Koo every day. Its base, solely in India, is touching approximately 4 million. Though there are glitches, however, this app is becoming popular. The Koo spokesperson stated that the company is expanding its server base to cater for the growing demand and would base all its servers in India. Many government entities and branches are joining this app to communicate with the public. Twitter views this app as a threat. When questioned on its users migrating to Koo, Twitter declined to comment.
India is a vibrant democracy and views dissent and criticism as a part of its democratic process. However, when inimical forces tend to cause disruption in the nation’s harmony and advocate violence, then every entity operating within Indian territorial limits, despite it being controlled anywhere in the globe, has a duty to adhere to government directions.
India should never be a pushover for any international concern. Indian internal security concerns are paramount and far more important than any profit-making global entity’s own views and perceptions of freedom of speech. Twitter does not represent the UN or any other global body and has no right to place any demands on India. It is evident that the company follows a duplicity in approach when the case involves the US and India.
A fact remains is why should twitter even discuss government directives with an Indian minister. The minister, an elected representative, is way above any service provider representative, which views its actions as solely commercial. Even the IT secretary should not have participated in the talks. They should be directed and forced to act. Blocking Twitter in India for just two days would severely impact its revenue. Its India based officials, responsible for operations in India, should be acted upon as per Indian law. Ultimately, pressure from the government did work and Twitter announced that it has removed 97% of the handles as demanded by India.
Further, every government entity should consider migrating to Koo, thereby drawing in more Indian population onto a homegrown app. This would threaten the market value to Twitter, provide support and backing to an Indian produced app with near-similar features. India is not a nation which multinationals can ignore. Its market is huge, and India should ensure that companies which operate within must adhere to its directions. Twitter can be no exception.