Twitter on Monday temporarily barred people in India from viewing several accounts belonging to activists, political commentators, a popular movie star and a major investigative journalism magazine, the Caravan, by order of the government of the country. All of the accounts had one thing in common: They had criticized India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi. Twitter reestablished the accounts more than six hours later, telling government officials that the tweets and accounts constituted free speech and were newsworthy.
The move comes amid a crackdown on dissent in India and raises questions about the role American tech companies are playing there. In recent weeks, Indian authorities have deposit sedition cases against prominent journalists for reporting on demonstrations by farmers challenging the Modi government. Over the weekend, police in New Delhi, the capital of India, stopped two journalists, one of whom is still in detention.
Last week, calls to “shoot” protesting farmers trend for hours on Twitter, as thousands of tweets encouraging police brutality flooded the platform.
Some of the most important accounts that Twitter temporarily blocked in the country included those who tweeted updates on the farmer protests, in addition to the Caravan.
“Caravan staff believe Twitter’s decision to suspend our official account is the latest in a long list of targeted attacks that have been mounted on the post for fearlessly pursuing important stories,” Vinod K. Jose , editor of the magazine, and one of the reporters who was charged with sedition last week told BuzzFeed News.
After the caravan returned to Twitter, he tweeted, “Our account has been restored. Now more than ever, it is clear that the real media need real allies. We thank our readers, subscribers and contributors for their continued support. “
In a statement, Twitter said, “Many countries have laws that may apply to Tweets and / or the content of Twitter accounts. In our continuous efforts to make our services accessible to people all over the world, if we receive a correctly framed request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to deny access to certain content in a particular country from time to time. Transparency is vital to protect freedom of expression, which is why we have a notification policy for withheld content. Upon receipt of content retention requests, we will promptly notify affected account holders (unless we are prohibited from doing so, for example if we receive a sealed court order). “
Twitter withholds tweets and accounts, including in the United States, if it receives “a valid and properly framed request from an authorized entity,” according to the company website. These tweets or accounts are generally visible to the rest of the world. The company states that it “promptly informs affected users, unless we are not authorized to do so,” and posts requests on Lumen, a Harvard University project.
But people whose accounts were temporarily blocked in India said Twitter did not notify them before taking action.
“They didn’t contact me before taking action against my account,” Sanjukta Basu, a political commentator whose Twitter account was withheld, told BuzzFeed News.
Jose said Twitter did not notify the magazine before blocking the account and only heard from the company an hour after the block was blocked. “Twitter has not disclosed where the legal removal request came from,” he said.
BuzzFeed News has learned that the legal order comes from India’s IT ministry under a section 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 blocked accounts or tweets. The IT ministry refused to release an official statement.
Twitter confirmed the orders came from India’s IT ministry, but said it would not upload them to the Lumen database since the accounts had been unblocked.
The company finds itself caught between local laws and global human rights standards.
“Internet platforms must ensure that all measures they take in response to government orders regarding the removal of content comply with the standards of international human rights law,” Raman Jit Singh Chima, international adviser senior and director of Asia-Pacific policy at Access Now, a nonprofit internet advocacy organization, told BuzzFeed News. “They should challenge orders that are exaggerated or that explicitly aim to prevent media organizations from reporting.”
This can mean, even temporarily, taking steps that would seem unthinkable in other countries – steps that have led to strong criticism.
“Can you imagine @twitter summarily ripping off the New Yorker or Atlantic account following a legal letter?” tweeted Nicholas Dawes, city editor and former director of Human Rights Watch. “Enforcing human rights-based standards for content moderation globally can be difficult, but it’s the job they signed up for.”