Twitter takes Indian government to court over blocking orders

NEW DELHI — Twitter took the Indian government to court Tuesday over content-removal orders, the first time the company has mounted a legal challenge against authorities here amid a widening internet crackdown.

The most recent orders to take down content and block accounts, which Twitter complied with Monday, were described as “arbitrary” and “disproportionate,” according to sources familiar with the filing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. The company did not specify which removal orders it was challenging.

With more than 38 million users, India is Twitter’s fourth-largest market, according to 2021 estimates by Insider Intelligence, a market research firm. The case is likely to escalate tensions with the government, which has increasingly sought to regulate social media platforms by tightening legislation and policing user activity.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, India’s junior minister for information technology, told The Washington Post that he had not yet seen the legal filing. “Everybody in India, including Twitter, has the right to court and judicial review,” he said. “But, equally, every intermediary operating in India has unambiguous obligation to comply with our laws.”

Digital rights advocates have slammed recent moves by India to regulate internet companies and monitor content. Authorities have tried to censor tweets critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic and recently arrested a journalist over a four-year-old tweet about a Hindu god.

New rules issued last year mandate that social media companies appoint India-based grievance officers to comply with government takedown requests or risk criminal liability. Twitter was already reprimanded by a local court over its failure to appoint such officials within the stipulated time. Police in the state of Uttar Pradesh also summoned the company’s top executive in India for failing to take down a viral video of alleged communal violence.

The government moved recently to require Indian companies to store user data and keep track of usage history, prompting leading virtual private network services such as ExpressVPN to pull out of the country. The company described the order as an attempt to “limit internet freedom.”

In the current suit filed in Bangalore, Twitter is asking for judicial review on multiple grounds, including procedural deficiencies, citing the government’s failure to notify users whose accounts are targeted. Several takedown orders relate to content posted by verified handles of political parties, Twitter said, arguing that censoring such information would violate freedom of speech.

According to a transparency report filed by Twitter covering the period from January to June 2021, India was among the top five countries demanding content removal, joining Japan, Russia, Turkey and South Korea. The company received nearly 5,000 legal demands to remove content in India and complied with about 12 percent of them, the report disclosed.

The legal challenge by Twitter is a “significant development that will impact free expression” of social media users in India, said Apar Gupta, executive director at the Internet Freedom Foundation.

Takedown orders are issued in secret, Gupta said, making it hard for users to contest them. Many are directed at tweets and handles expressing “criticism or dissent, rather than any illegality,” he added, citing disclosures by Twitter to the Lumen database, an American site that analyzes legal complaints and removal requests.

The report to Lumen revealed that the Indian government had asked Twitter last year to block accounts and tweets from journalists, politicians and civil society.

Multiple Twitter accounts supporting protests over a controversial farm law are currently blocked in India, a farmers union said in late June. Also hidden from view are tweets about the global decline in internet freedom by Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that tracks democracy and human rights.

In a tweet June 30, the group expressed concern about the government’s restrictions on online speech, noting that human rights defenders and journalists in the country “often face this kind of censorship.”

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