Twitter’s decision to reject Indian demands to remove content and block accounts the government doesn’t like shows a tough new approach by social media giants that analysts say could set a precedent amid growing crackdown regulations.
On Tuesday, the US social media platform asked an Indian court to overturn some of the government’s orders to remove posts, which Delhi had accused of spreading misinformation.
They included posts that supported the farmers’ protests and tweets criticizing the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Twitter called the crackdown overbroad and arbitrary, with the government showing “excessive use of power”.
The hearing date has not been set.
Whatever its outcome, the case could have ramifications far beyond India as countries increasingly seek to curtail the power of social media, said Prateek Waghre of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group in Delhi.
“There are going to be more confrontations with the government here,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We are also seeing a trend towards regulating online content, even in liberal democracies, notably the UK and the EU (European Union),” he said. “India is a big and important market, so what happens here will set a precedent.”
India’s Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told reporters on Tuesday that holding social media accountable “has become a very valid issue.”
“All over the world, countries and societies are moving towards social media accountability,” he said, without giving specific details.
The government has previously accused social media platforms of violating the constitutional rights of Indian citizens.
Twitter – which has about 24 million users in India – did not respond to a request for comment.
Governments around the world are imposing increased control over the flow of information online with a slew of regulations, as well as firewalls, internet shutdowns and social media blockages.
India has tightened regulations on Big Tech companies in recent years, including requiring the prompt removal of posts and the sharing of details about the authors of posts.
Google, owner of YouTube, has received nearly 14,000 requests to remove content from the Indian government since 2011, with increasing frequency, according to its data.
Twitter received more than 17,000 removal requests from January 2012 to June 2021 from India, about 7% of its content removal requests globally.
Last year, WhatsApp, a unit of Facebook, filed a lawsuit against the Indian government seeking to block regulations that experts say would force the company to breach privacy protections.
Authorities cite national security grounds to justify the restrictions, even as rights groups say they are being used to silence critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, including journalists, activists and MPs of the opposition.
Twitter’s lawsuit is not about “a Big Tech company against the Indian government”, but about human rights and government accountability, said Raman Jit Singh Chima of Access Now, a digital rights group.
“Twitter is standing up for the people and doing what the government should be doing: protecting our rights.”
Twitter has also been criticized – along with other social media platforms – for not doing enough to control abuse directed at women and minority communities.
Casey Newton, founder of Platformer, a Big Tech newsletter, said a lot hinged on the lawsuit.
“If Twitter loses, it would represent one of the biggest losses yet for free speech,” he wrote on his blog.
“And it will give other opportunistic nations a playbook on how to silence their dissidents under the guise of national security.”