Twitter suspends over 500 accounts in India after government warning

Twitter said on Wednesday it has taken actions on more than 500 accounts and reduced visibility of some hashtags in India to comply with “several” orders from the Indian government after New Delhi threatened legal action against executives with American social network.

Twitter had suspended hundreds of Twitter accounts, several in links to farmers’ protests on agricultural reforms, at the request of New Delhi early last week, but then reversed its decision within hours citing users’ freedom of speech. The company said on Wednesday that it was re-suspending most of those accounts, in some cases, permanently, and preventing certain terms from appearing in the Trends section.

The company said Twitter handles are only being blocked in India and will remain visible outside of the country as it believes orders by the Indian government are inconsistent with local law. It also said that no accounts belonging to news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians were taken down. “To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law. We informed MeitY [Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology] of our enforcement actions today,” it said.

“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, Government of India, under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act,” the company wrote in a blog post.

“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,” it added.

Millions of farmers have been protesting New Delhi’s new laws for more than two months. The Indian government maintains that the new laws are aimed at helping farmers and consumers by streamlining the agricultural supply chain — millions of farmers disagree. New Delhi also temporarily shut internet services near the protests in and around national capital last month.

Twitter, which reaches more than 75 million users through its apps in India, has emerged as the single-most important online forum for people seeking to voice their opinion on this subject. Singer Rihanna, who has more followers on Twitter than any Indian actor or politician, tweeted a CNN news story last week about the protests in India and asked “why aren’t we talking about this!?”

Several users had also tweeted using the hashtag #modiplanningfarmersgenocide that were aimed at New Delhi’s agriculture reforms. The company said several accounts and hashtags violated the Twitter Rules, particularly inciting violence, abuse, wishes of harm, and threats that could trigger the risk of offline harm.

A Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch that hashtags that were merely supporting farmers or their protests have not been restricted.

India demanded Twitter to block hundreds of accounts earlier this month over concerns that many users were sharing false and intimidatory statements and provocative messages late last months.

Twitter had initially complied with the order, which resulted in blocking accounts of several high-profile names such as The Caravan (a news outlet that conducts investigative journalism), political commentator Sanjukta Basu, activist Hansraj Meena, actor Sushant Singh, and Shashi Shekhar Vempati, chief executive of state-run broadcasting agency Prasar Bharti. Accounts of at least two politicians with Aam Aadmi Party — Preeti Sharma Menon and Jarnail Singh — that governs the National Capital Territory of Delhi were also blocked.

However, hours later, Twitter lifted the block, citing users’ freedom of speech. The move prompted New Delhi to issue a more serious warning to Twitter and executives under the nation’s Section 69A, which allows “punishment with an imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fines.” New Delhi said that Twitter cannot “assume the role of a court and justify non-compliance” in India.

“We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve and are actively exploring options under Indian law — both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted. We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter, and strongly believe that the Tweets should flow,” the company said today.

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