Twitter has objected to the Indian government’s orders to take down critical content on the social media platform. The Washington Post believes that this could be a pivotal moment for internet speech around the world.
The petition filed by Twitter in the Karnataka High Court challenges a recent order from the Indian government, which demanded that the company remove certain content and block certain accounts. Twitter complied with the order but then sought judicial relief.
The Washington Post editorial board published an opinion piece on Sunday, stating that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had been eroding freedom of expression online for some time. This is most notably evidenced by a law passed last year extending the executive branch’s censorship powers.
The law provides that the government may request the removal of certain material within 36 hours of receipt, and may initiate criminal proceedings against a designated company grievance officer located in the country if such request is refused.
Invoking the same laws, Twitter’s top executive was summoned by police in one state for failing to take down a violent video; armed forces once showed up at the company’s offices as part of an investigation about a matter as anodyne as a tweet having been labeled “manipulated media.”
Twitter has come under fire for its decision to limit the reach of tweets from certain writers in specific countries. This move has drawn criticism from many who see it as a violation of freedom of expression.
While Twitter has been vocal about its commitment to free speech, it has also been clear that it must take into account the safety of its employees when making decisions about content restriction. In this case, it appears that Twitter has chosen to prioritize safety over freedom of expression.
Twitter has filed a petition arguing that the government has attempted to censor more tweets than the law allows. The platform also argues that authorities have failed to provide justification for their demands, or to review past takedowns to ensure they remain necessary.
The case is essentially a test of whether free expression in India will continue to thrive — whether, when an unjust law is unjustly applied, the judiciary will step in to protect it.
The battle for the future of the internet is not only about Twitter, and not only about India. Some countries have already imposed rules as restrictive as India’s revised code; others are considering it.
The same goes for the so-called hostage-taking laws threatening employees that intimidate firms into closer cooperation. Not only social media companies should be resisting them; democracies around the world committed to civil liberties also have a duty to fight for the internet’s future.
The New York Times reported that Twitter had been instructed by the Indian government to remove content that pertained to civil liberties, protests, press freedoms, and criticisms of the government’s response to the pandemic.
This is not the first instance where WhatsApp has been told that it must make people’s private messages accessible to government agencies; this practice is currently being challenged in court.
Experts said the Indian government’s move to force Twitter to block accounts and posts amounted to censorship, at a time when the government is accused of weaponizing a loose definition of what content it finds offensive to go after critics, the NYT added.