Twitter case in India could have massive ripple effects

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In June twitter received an ultimatum from the Indian government to remove some 39 accounts and content from your platform. Sources familiar with the order say it stated that if Twitter refused to comply, its chief compliance officer could face criminal charges. They say they also said the company would lose its “safe harbor” protection, meaning it would no longer be protected from liability for content created by its own users. This is an escalation of a series of “block orders” or take down orders sent by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology which increased significantly over the past 18 months.

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Twitter responded last week: The Government of India will sue.

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While the dispute itself only concerns specific accounts and pieces of content, experts have told WIRED that its outcome could have major repercussions and become “the frontman in this ongoing battle for internet freedom,” says Ellie Funk, director of technology and democracy research at Freedom House. .

Twitter’s lawsuit focuses in particular on section 69A of India’s information technology laws. Laws passed in 2000 allow the government to issue blocking orders, requiring an intermediary – in this case Twitter – to remove content that the government considers a threat to India’s security or sovereignty. The lawsuit has yet to be made public, but it alleges that the government’s requests are excessive and sometimes involve entire bills, according to people familiar with the lawsuit.

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Jason Pilemeyer, chief executive of the Global Network Initiative, says Twitter’s lawsuit has implications for more than just social media. “This will affect all intermediaries,” he said. “Intermediaries, as defined by Indian law, include mobile operators, including Internet Service Providers. So this really applies to anyone who can be seen as a bottleneck for content restriction or censorship.” If Twitter loses in court, it could give the government the power to censor entire websites and media on streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime and make it harder for platforms and companies to resist.

“About 2010 or 2011, the government made rules for [earlier] strength,” says Raman Jeet Singh Cheema, senior international adviser and policy director for Asia Pacific at Access Now. These new additions to the law in 2009 prevented platforms from publicly disclosing the blocking orders they received. “Even at the time, there was a lot of criticism that the rules gave all power to the executive branch.” Twitter’s case does not seek to challenge the constitutionality of 69A, but instead argues that some of the blocking orders fall short of the government’s own standards for establishing reasons why content should be taken down and violate users’ free speech rights.

Since India’s information technology laws allow the government to covertly issue blocking orders, it is especially difficult for individual users to understand why their content is being censored or try to reverse the government’s decision. In 2018, the government issued an order blocking the satirical site., owned by journalist Tanul Thakur, who was not told why the site was blocked and started a legal battle to find out. The government claimed that Thakur’s website advertised dowry, which is illegal in India, but resist in many places independently. In 2018 Thakur said Perspective India that the site was supposed to point to this “eminent social evil”.

“I wanted something funny, entertaining, but also poking fun at [the] the patriarchal structure of society,” he said, noting that if government officials had looked at the site, they might have realized that the site was a satire. “But they only examined what was on the surface.”

In May, the Delhi High Court rules that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology should have provided a copy of the original blocking order for Thakur. But individual users and community groups are unaware of blocking orders, and few have the time or resources to weather a four-year legal battle for transparency, as Thakur did. This has left big tech companies like Twitter in a unique position as they are the main bulwark against government censorship. “The only organizations that really know the nature of the problem and the deeply disturbing violations of human rights [blocking] the orders we see are coming from the government itself and technology companies,” Chima says.

Funk says a “strategic litigation” like the Twitter case can be one of the most effective, and sometimes the only, ways to protect user rights, challenge invasive surveillance, or reverse an internet shutdown.

Twitter is more than most other social networks, constantly pushed back about censorship. In February 2021, India introduced new IT regulations requiring social platforms to respond to government takedown requests within 15 days and appoint a local representative who can be held legally liable if the company fails to comply with the blocking orders.

Originally Twitter resisted some of the government’s lockdown orders and were slow to appoint a representative in the country. In May 2021, shortly after Twitter flagged as tweet published by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesman Sambit Patra as “manipulated by the media”, the police conducted a search twitter offices in Delhi and Gurgaon. By July, the Government of India stated that the company non-compliance meant it would lose its safe harbor protection, and so Twitter capitulated by August. “The government is not shy about using police force to signal that employees are at risk,” said Mishi Chowdhary, legal director of the Center for Right to Software Freedom. “It’s proxy censorship on steroids.”

India belongs to Twitter third largest marketafter the USA and Japan. But Chowdhary says tech companies have, in part, brought on some of that government control by not interacting with civil society or governments outside of Western markets, as they do in the US or Europe. “Even when there were sincere concerns about the removal of content or other issues, [companies] did not treat the government of India seriously and respectfully,” says Chowdhary. “Of course the government wants to control the narrative, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, even on serious issues, we would get calls and ask, “Do you know anyone from Facebook?” “Do you know anyone on Twitter? We would like [an issue] be addressed. If this continues, you will see some manifestation of state power.”

The Twitter lawsuit is filed in connection with the right-wing BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. pinches more broadly about dissent, up to allegedly spying on activists using the infamous Pegasus spyware from the NSO Group.

Mohammad Zubair, co-founder non-profit fact-checking organization Alt Newswas arrested June 27, for a 2018 tweet that authorities say insults Hindu religious beliefs. Alt News regularly takes a hostile stance towards the Modi administration by checking the facts right-wing disinformation networks which often support BJP. Just five days before Zubair’s arrest said that he received notification from Twitter that his account had received a government block order. A Twitter spokesperson declined to say if Zubair’s account was one of the blocking orders the company is contesting.

“There are members of India’s current ruling political party at the federal level who seem particularly concerned about the increased pressure on right-wing extremist votes in India,” Cheema says. “And they regularly try to preemptively intimidate Twitter.” Cheema calls the government’s arguments for accountability in tech companies a “dog whistle” to warn companies against taking on government orders, rather than a call to act more ethically.

“Back in 2014, we saw the willingness of the government to issue these orders, especially since the protesters are using the Internet more and more,” Chima says. “Starting in 2020, we are seeing the government issuing a massive amount of lockdown orders.”

Cheema also says the court’s decision is likely to set a precedent across the region, where India often serves as a model for its neighbors in developing legislation and regulations. “Even if India is not explicitly called a role model, you can sometimes see how civil servants, bureaucrats and even lawyers struggle to find exemplary language or model text by copying from another country with a similar context. Chima says.

Funk fears that the decision against Twitter will send a signal to other governments that the use of practices like India’s that highlight threats to staff or the removal of liability protections for user-generated content will become even more common. “This case is not only about the freedom of speech rights of the people in India, which are very important to protect, but will have global implications for how people think about these issues,” she says.

But Cheema warns that even if the court rules in favor of Twitter, it is likely to be just the start of a much longer government effort to censor speech. “The government even seems to be waiting and preparing for court decisions that could be against it,” he says. “Many people fear that the government is going to use this as mood music to justify further regulation.”

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