On Monday, Twitter temporarily blocked people in India from viewing several accounts belonging to activists, political commentators, a famous movie star, and an investigative journalism magazine, Caravan, by order of the government of the country. All the accounts had one thing in common – they had criticized the Indian nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi. Twitter reinstated the accounts more than six hours later, telling government officials that the tweets and accounts constituted freedom of speech and were newsworthy.
The move comes during a crackdown on dissidents in India and raises questions about the role that American technology companies play here. In recent weeks, authorities in India have had it archived sedition cases against prominent journalists for reporting on farmers ’protests challenging the Modi government. Over the weekend, police in New Delhi, the capital of India, arrested two journalists, one of whom is still in custody.
Last week, he called for “pulling” protesting farmers Trending for hours on Twitter, while thousands of tweets encouraging police brutality flooded the platform.
Some of the most prominent accounts that Twitter has temporarily blocked in the country include those that tweeted updates on farmers ’protests, in addition to the Caravan.
“Caravan staff think that Twitter’s decision to hold our official account is the latest in a long list of targeted attacks that have been mounted on the post for pursuing important stories without fear,” Vinod K. Jose , executive editor of the magazine, and one of the reporters who had accused him of sedition filed against him last week told BuzzFeed News.
After the Caravan returned to Twitter, he tweeted, “Our account has been restored. Today more than ever, it is clear that the real media needs real allies. We thank our readers, subscribers and contributors for their endless support.”
In a statement, Twitter said: “Many countries have laws that may apply to Tweets and / or Twitter account content. In our ongoing effort to make our services available to people everywhere, they receive them. I do not request correctly scoped by an authorized entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time. Transparency is vital to protecting freedom of expression, so we have a disclaimer for the content we retain. Upon receipt of requests to retain content, we will immediately notify the affected account holders (unless prohibited from doing so, for example, if we receive a sealed court order). “
Twitter retains tweets and accounts, even in the United States, if it receives “a valid and correct request from an authorized entity,” according to the company website. These tweets or accounts are typically visible in the rest of the world. The company says it will “promptly inform affected users unless prohibited to do so,” and publishes the requests. Lumen, a Harvard University project.
But people whose accounts have been temporarily blocked in India have said that Twitter had not warned them before taking action.
“They did not contact me before taking action against my account,” Sanjukta Basu, a political commentator whose Twitter account he retained, told BuzzFeed News.
Jose said Twitter did not notify the magazine before blocking the account, and he only heard from the company an hour after the block. “Twitter has not disclosed where the legal removal request comes from,” he said.
BuzzFeed News has learned that the legal order has come from India’s IT ministry below section of the law that allows the government to order the removal of content considered a threat to national security, and that prevents companies like Twitter from disclosing information about blocking an account or tweet . The information ministry has refused to issue an official statement.
Twitter has confirmed that the orders are coming from India’s IT ministry, but said it will not upload them to the Lumen database since the accounts have been unlocked.
The company finds itself trapped between local laws and global human rights standards.
“Internet platforms need to ensure that any action they take in response to government orders for content removal complies with international human rights law,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international advisor and director of Asia Pacific policy at Access Now, a nonprofit internet defense organization, told BuzzFeed News. “They should challenge orders that are at sea, or that explicitly seek to suppress media organizations from reporting.”
This may mean, even temporarily, taking actions that seem unthinkable in other countries – actions that have led to acute criticism.
“Can you imagine @twitter summarily pulling the New Yorker or Atlantic account after a legal letter?” he tweeted Nicholas Dawes, executive editor of the City and former director of Human Rights Watch. “Applying human rights-based standards for content moderation on a global scale can be difficult, but it’s the job for which they are enrolled.”