Twitter goes to court in India over free speech

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Twitter had filed a lawsuit against the government of India in the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore, challenging a recent decree that ordered Twitter to take down content and block a number of accounts. Twitter obeyed the order, removing the content and blocking the accounts, according to the Times, but then filed the suit in an attempt to overturn the order. A source who spoke with the Times said Twitter isn’t trying to invalidate the law under which the order was issued, but instead argues that the government interpreted it too broadly. A TV network in New Delhi reported that the suit alleges the order was “overbroad, arbitrary, and disproportionate,” and that the content in question is either political commentary, criticism, or otherwise newsworthy, and therefore should not be removed.

It’s not known which specific tweets or accounts are the subject of the order, in part because India’s laws forbid platforms from talking about the takedown orders they receive, or any of the content they refer to, or the reasons for the order. Last year, the Indian government ordered Twitter to remove tweets by Freedom House, a US-based nonprofit group that promotes democracy around the world. The group noted that internet freedom was declining in India, and included maps whose borders the government of India disputes. Tweets from Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist, and Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of a fact-checking organization, were also subject to a similar order, as were accounts belonging to a number of political parties and groups.

Other accounts ordered to be blocked allegedly made “fake, intimidatory, and provocative tweets” that some took to be accusing the Indian government of genocide. In a number of cases, Twitter simply blocked access to tweets from within India, using what it calls its “country withheld” tool, a form of geo-blocking. In February of last year, in one of the largest such moves, Twitter removed more than 500 accounts (after initially refusing the order) and used geo-blocking to hide others, because of remarks those accounts made about Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India. At the time, Twitter said it refused to remove any accounts belonging to journalists, politicians, or activists because it believed doing so “would violate their fundamental right to free expression.”

Twitter’s comments led many to believe that the company planned to fight some of the provisions of the Indian laws that provide the foundation for such orders. Those laws include the Information Technology Act of 2000, which allows the government to block access to content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, and public order.” In early 2021, the country’s control of digital speech was tightened even further with the passing of a Digital Media Ethics Code, which applies to online news and information providers. These companies are required to take certain steps, such as taking down content within 36 hours of receiving a government order, and assisting law enforcement agencies with other such requests.

Services that have more than 5 million users in India—a group that includes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube—are also required to moderate certain kinds of offensive and illegal content, and can be compelled to identify the original poster of the content under certain circumstances. These large social services can receive “safe harbor” protection (similar to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in the US), but only if they satisfy a number of other criteria, including having a staff member available in the country to handle such requests. The latter is sometimes called a “hostage law,” since it means local staff members can be arrested, fined, and even jailed if their company refuses to comply with the government’s orders.

According to a report from The Hindustan Times, the lawsuit that Twitter filed Tuesday came about because the company received a letter from the Indian government detailing what it called “the serious consequences of non-compliance” with previous orders to remove tweets and accounts, consequences that could potentially include “criminal proceedings against Twitter’s Chief Compliance Officer.” Twitter has reportedly received two similar non-compliance notices in the past, including a notice related to accounts and content about a farmers’ revolt in India, and one related to misinformation about COVID-19. In May of last year, police raided Twitter’s offices in India after the company labeled tweets by a politician from Modi’s party “manipulated media.”

The Indian government urged Twitter on Tuesday to follow the rules, the Times reported: “It is everyone’s responsibility to abide by the laws passed by the country’s Parliament,” Ashwini Vaishnaw, the minister of electronics and information technology, said at a news conference. The Modi government maintains that the orders it sends to companies like Twitter are designed to crack down on misinformation and to quell disorder and violence. But some believe they have become a way for Modi and his party to crack down on dissent and free speech when users choose to criticize his government. Other social media platforms looking at India as a market for expansion will undoubtedly be watching the Twitter lawsuit with great interest.

Here’s more on Twitter and the law:

No choice: Twitter may push back on certain orders from the Indian government, but some believe the company has little choice if it wants to operate there. “The rules of the game have changed,” Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and founder of a tech policy site based in India, called MediaNama, told Rest of World. “Whatever Twitter may have blocked last year…the Indian government has since given itself the power to jail someone from Twitter if it does not comply with government orders. And that’s a risk very few companies, maybe no company, will be willing to take.”

WhatsApp: WhatsApp, the messaging service owned by Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has also sued the Indian government over its Digital Ethics Code. Last year, the service filed suit over the requirement that social platforms be able to identify who posted specific pieces of content. WhatsApp’s service is encrypted end-to-end, which means that even the company can’t see the content of messages sent between users. The company said in its lawsuit that requiring it to identify users who posted certain types of content “would severely undermine the privacy of billions of people.”

Nigeria: In January, the government of Nigeria lifted a ban on Twitter that had lasted for seven months. The ban was put in place after the service deleted a tweet posted by Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, which Twitter said violated its policy against abusive behavior, but the Nigerian government said the service was banned because it was being used for “subversive purposes and criminal activities, propagating fake news, and polarising Nigerians along tribal and religious lines,” according to Bloomberg. The ban was lifted after Twitter agreed to establish a legal entity in Nigeria, and to appoint a local representative to handle government requests when required.

The law: Elon Musk, who is still in the process of acquiring Twitter for $44 billion, posted a series of tweets earlier this year in which he tried to clarify his views on free speech and Twitter. Musk said: “By free speech, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask governments to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.” It’s unclear how Musk would apply this principle in countries like India, where increasing censorship of Twitter is arguably a result of the law.

Other notable stories:

Boris Johnson, the prime minister of Britain, announced this morning that he is stepping down as leader of the Conservative party in the UK, after more than 50 members of his government resigned en masse over the past two days. The BBC reported that Johnson plans to continue to serve as prime minister until a new leader of the Conservative party is elected. “It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of the party and therefore a new prime minister,” Johnson said. However, some British MPs are saying Johnson needs to step down as prime minister immediately because he has lost the confidence of Parliament.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said Tuesday that the US government should ensure that those responsible for the killing of Shireen Abu Akhleh—the Palestinian American journalist who was shot in March, apparently by Israeli forces—are held to account. “The U.S. should either take the lead in investigating Abu Akleh’s death in a fully credible and transparent manner, or it should support international efforts to seek justice on behalf of her and her family,” said Sherif Mansour, the CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.

China is censoring news of the alleged hacking of a Shanghai police database that contained the personal data of more than 1 billion people, the Financial Times reported. A hacker announced the leak in an online forum devoted to cyber crime late last month, and claimed that the file contains names, addresses, IDs, phone numbers, and criminal records of more than 1 billion Chinese citizens. “The alleged hack set Chinese social media abuzz for a brief period over the weekend,” the FT reported, “but by Monday microblogging network Weibo and Tencent’s WeChat had begun to censor the topic.”

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield, a longtime aide to Joe Biden, will be departing the administration later this summer, White House officials said Wednesday, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. “Ms. Bedingfield has been one of Mr. Biden’s most loyal confidantes since his time as vice president under former President Barack Obama and has been among a core group of senior strategists who helped steer his winning 2020 presidential bid and guide the first 18 months of his administration,” the Journal wrote.

The Associated Press has reopened its office in the Gaza Strip, more than a year after the building that housed its previous bureau was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, the news service reported. “AP’s resilient Gaza team has never wavered, even in the moments our bureau collapsed and in the weeks that followed. The Associated Press has operated in Gaza for more than half a century and remains committed to telling the story of Gaza and its people,” said Daisy Veerasingham, the president and CEO of the Associated Press.

A group of more than 20 alternative digital media outlets have co-published a blog post and video arguing that “corporate media” should stop making ads for fossil fuel companies. The piece was created by Maria Bustillos, founder of Popula and a former public editor for CJR, and Alex Kotch from OptOut, a news service and app that includes alternative media sources. The story also included reporting from Amy Westervelt, the creator of Drilled, a podcast about climate change. The outlets that published it simultaneously include OptOut, Popula, Discourse, and Welcome to Hell World.

The British army confirmed that it lost control of both its Twitter and YouTube accounts, according to a report from The Guardian. The Army’s account on Twitter appeared to have been hacked, with the name BAPESCAN instead of British Army, and a profile picture that featured a cartoon monkey. Its description had been changed from the original text about the account containing news and information on deployments and training exercises to “#1 metavesto clan on the ETH chain with multi-billion dollar experience. Powered by @chaintchlabs.” The Army said it was investigating the breach.

In an interview with the New York Times blog The Insider, David Fahrenthold talked about his work, and why he thinks the world of nonprofit charities is prime territory for investigative reporting. Fahrenthold won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, while he was working for the Washington Post, for his reporting on the Trump Foundation’s misappropriation of charitable funds. “I thought, there is so much information out there about charities and they occupy such an important business and moral role in society, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of enforcement there,” Fahrenthold said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.