On Monday, Twitter temporarily blocked people in India from viewing various accounts belonging to activists, political commentators, a popular movie star and a leading investigative journalism magazine, the Caravan, by order of the government of the country. All the stories had one thing in common: they had been critical of India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi. Twitter restored the accounts more than six hours later, and told government officials that the tweets and accounts constituted freedom of expression and were newsworthy.
The move comes during the crackdown on dissent in India and raises questions about the role U.S. technology companies play in it. In recent weeks, the Indian authorities have archived cases of sedition against prominent journalists for reporting on farmers ’protests challenging the Modi government. Over the weekend, police in New Delhi, the capital of India, detained two journalists, one of whom is still in custody.
Last week, protesting farmers were asked to “shoot” trend for hours on Twitter, while thousands of tweets encouraging police brutality flooded the platform.
Some of the most prominent accounts that Twitter temporarily blocked in the country included those that tweeted updates on farmers ’protests, in addition to the Caravan.
“Caravan staff consider Twitter’s decision to retain our official account to be the latest in a long list of targeted attacks that have been posted in search of important issues without fear,” Vinod K said. Jose, the magazine ‘s executive editor, and one of the reporters who filed charges of sedition against him last week told BuzzFeed News.
After the caravan returned to Twitter, he tweeted, “Our account has been restored. Today, more than ever, it is clear that the real media needs real allies. We thank our readers, subscribers and contributors for their unwavering support.”
In a statement, Twitter said: “Many countries have laws that may apply to tweets and / or Twitter account content. In our continued effort to make our services available to people everywhere, if we receive one application of appropriate scope from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time. Transparency is vital to protecting freedom of expression, so we have a warning policy on withheld content. Upon receipt of content retention requests, we will immediately notify affected account holders (unless we are prohibited from doing so, for example, if we receive a sealed court order). “
Twitter retains tweets and accounts, including the United States, if it receives “a valid request and with an appropriate scope from an authorized entity,” according to the company. website. These tweets or accounts are usually visible to the rest of the world. The company says it “immediately notifies affected users unless we are prohibited from doing so” and publishes requests to Lumen, a project at Harvard University.
But people with temporarily blocked accounts in India said Twitter had not notified them before acting.
“They didn’t contact me before acting against my account,” Sanjukta Basu, a political commentator whose account withheld Twitter, 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. “Twitter did not reveal where the legal withdrawal lawsuit came from,” he said.
BuzzFeed News learned that the legal order came from India’s IT ministry under one section of the law that allows the government to order the removal of content considered a threat to national security and prevents companies like Twitter from disclosing information about blocking an account or tweeting. The IT ministry refused to issue 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 were unlocked.
The company is caught between local laws and global human rights standards.
“Internet platforms must ensure that all actions they take in response to government orders on content removal comply with international standards of human rights law,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international adviser and Asia Pacific policy director for Access Now, a nonprofit internet promotion organization, told BuzzFeed News. “They should respond to orders that are on the outside or that are explicitly trying to suppress media organizations.”
This can mean, even temporarily, actions that would seem unthinkable in other countries; action that provoked intense criticism.
“Can you imagine @twitter summarizing the New Yorker or Atlantic account after a legal letter?” he tweeted Nicholas Dawes, city executive editor and former director of Human Rights Watch. “Applying human rights-based standards to moderate content globally can be difficult, but it’s the job they signed up for.”