Earlier this month, Twitter announced it had taken action against 500 accounts that it said had violated the platform’s rules.
The announcement came after the Indian government ordered the platform to remove more than 1,100 posts and accounts that it claimed were spreading misinformation regarding widespread protests by farmers against new agricultural laws, Reuters reported.
The move, a response to orders from India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, follows an earlier request to limit the audiences of 250 accounts that used hashtags related to the term “farmer genocide,” according to the tech news site Neowin.
Twitter explained its recent actions in a Feb. 10 blog post, noting that “over the course of the last 10 days, Twitter has been served with several separate blocking orders by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Government of India, under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act.
“Out of these, two were emergency blocking orders that we temporarily complied with but subsequently restored access to the content in a manner that we believe was consistent with Indian law. After we communicated this to MeitY, we were served with a non-compliance notice.”
“We took steps to reduce the visibility of the hashtags containing harmful content, which included prohibiting them from trending on Twitter and appearing as recommended search terms,” the platform said.
Twitter also said it had purged a multitude of accounts: “We took a range of enforcement actions — including permanent suspension in certain cases — against more than 500 accounts escalated across all MeitY orders for clear violations of Twitter’s Rules.”
Twitter’s partial compliance with the Indian government’s orders has effectively led to a standoff between a private company and a national government, culminating in a contentious meeting between MeitY Secretary Ajay Sawhney and Twitter’s vice president for global public policy, Monique Meche, and its deputy general counsel, Jim Baker, according to CNBC. (The Feb. 10 meeting came after Twitter published its blog post.)
A statement from the Indian government confirmed that during the meeting, Sawhney told Meche “that in India, its Constitution and laws are supreme.”
In January, Indian authorities cracked down on providing mobile internet services to certain districts after huge protests near Delhi turned into clashes with police, the BBC reported. The protests stem from September legislation that was meant to reform the farming industry.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims the laws will result in badly needed modernization and better competition, according to The Guardian, but many farmers believe the laws fail to protect their livelihoods against large private companies.
Meanwhile, it seems Twitter cannot escape criticism at this point, whether it comes via complaints about the company’s decision to permanently ban former President Donald Trump or via a heated disagreement with a national government.
Although India claims to be a liberal democracy, its laws regarding free speech are murky, to say the least. Article 19 of the Indian Constitution’s first amendment says all citizens have freedom of expression, but also that nothing prevents the state from creating legislation that imposes “reasonable restrictions,” according to the South China Morning Post.
India also has legislation on the books regarding “hate speech,” which the 267th Report of the Law Commission of India defines as “an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief and the like.”
In other words, the government essentially has free rein when it comes to making certain speech illegal as it sees fit.
This policy conflicts with a so-called “liberal democracy” that should build one of its key foundations on the basis of protecting as much speech and expression as possible.
Over the past several years, we’ve witnessed the continuation of worldwide crackdowns of free speech as federal governments make exceptions to their laws.
The death of free speech used to only be associated with totalitarian dictatorships hoping to quash anyone who spoke up against their tyranny or leaked secrets that could threaten their power.
But now, the death of free speech is slowly occurring in democracies around the world, from India to the United States.
And while they might not comply fully, private companies like Twitter have expressed a willingness to bow to unjust foreign laws — a disturbing precedent to set, even if the accounts purged by Twitter had indeed broken the platform’s rules.
Giving governments increased levels of control over the most fundamental of God-given rights establishes a worrisome precedent for the future of new ideas and dialogue within democratic societies.
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