Twitter, challenging orders to take down content, sues Indian government

Twitter said on Tuesday it was suing the government of India, escalating the social network’s struggles in the country as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to tighten its grip on critical online posts.

The Twitter lawsuit, filed in the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore, challenges a recent Indian government order to remove content and block dozens of accounts. Twitter complied with the order, whose deadline was set on Monday, but then went to court. No date has been set for a judge to hear Twitter’s lawsuit.

The lawsuit is the first lawsuit the company has filed to challenge laws passed in 2021 that expand the Indian government’s censorship powers. The rules gave the government oversight of Twitter and other social networks, allowing the authorities to require posts or accounts critical of them to be hidden from Indian users. Company executives can be held criminally liable if they do not comply with the requirements.

The laws have been met with protest from Twitter and other social media platforms that see India as an integral part of their long-term growth plans. The companies claim that India’s rules allow the government to widely censor its critics and that they undermine security measures such as encryption. But Indian officials have said the law is needed to combat misinformation online.

Twitter is not seeking to overturn the laws, but claims in its lawsuit that the government has interpreted the laws too broadly, said a person familiar with the filing but not authorized to speak publicly.

On Tuesday, the Indian government urged Twitter to follow the rules. “Everyone is obligated to abide by the laws passed by the country’s parliament,” Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnav said at a press conference.

mr. Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party have been working for several years to curb the power of tech companies and more tightly control what they say onlineusing new information technology laws to crush dissent. Twitter, for example, has been ordered to remove content related to civil liberties complaints, protests, press freedoms and criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic. WhatsApp said it would need to make people’s private messages “traceable” to government agencies upon request.

In addition, the new rules required social media companies to hire executives from India to ensure companies comply with government requirements to take down content and block accounts. If these actions are not taken, then the leaders can be held criminally liable and can be sentenced to imprisonment for up to seven years.

Twitter has previously criticized the government’s tactics and urged him to respect freedom of expression. The company said Indian laws have been applied “arbitrarily and disproportionately” against the company and its users, many of whom are journalists, opposition politicians and non-profit groups.

Twitter lawsuit follows legal action last year whatsapp, a messaging app owned by Meta, is against the country’s new laws. WhatsApp has applied to the Delhi High Court to block the application of a rule requiring tracking of user messages. Regarding the WhatsApp case, the government said the right to privacy is not “absolute” and “subject to reasonable restrictions.”

This case is pending.

Twitter has sued governments in the past to protect anonymous users or object to censorship. In 2014, the company sued the United States, alleging that the government was restricting Twitter’s free speech rights by preventing the company from disclosing information about surveillance. That lawsuit was fired in 2020.

In 2017, Twitter again sued the US to stop the government unmasking an anonymous account who has been critical of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The government dropped its claims after Twitter filed a lawsuit.

Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, is in the process $44 billion purchase of Twittersaid the company should relax its content moderation policy and allow tweets to remain on the platform as long as they don’t violate local laws.

Twitter’s lawsuit against the government of India is part of expanding battle between the biggest tech companies and governments around the world about who has the edge. Australia and the European Union have drafted or enacted laws limiting the powers GoogleFacebook and other companies because of online speeches, while other countries are trying to curb the services of companies in order to quell dissent and quell protests.

Experts have said the Indian government’s move to force Twitter to block accounts and posts amounts to censorship, while the government has been accused of using a vague definition of what content it considers offensive to target critics.

February 2021 Twitter permanently bans over 500 accounts and removed from view an unspecified number of others in India after the government accused them of making inflammatory remarks about Mr. Modi. At the time, Twitter said it was taking no action against the accounts of journalists, politicians and activists, saying it did not believe orders to block them were “in line with Indian law”.

May 2021 Indian police raid Twitter office after the company decided to label the tweets of politicians from Mr. Modi’s party “manipulated the media”. The tweets criticized members of the opposition who used the platform to criticize Mr. Trump. Modi and what they called his government’s clumsy response to the pandemic.

And in recent weeks, the New Delhi police have arrested Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of a famous fact-checking website, for a 2018 tweet that featured a picture from an old Bollywood movie. The government said the image was causing public disharmony after a Twitter account with few followers and only one tweet complained about it and tagged the Delhi police. This account soon disappeared.

Last week, Twitter was ordered to block tweets from Freedom House, an American non-profit organization that cited India as an example of a country where press freedom is in decline.

“It speaks to how India’s international press freedom ranking report has responded with censorship rather than debate and discussion,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “This is an undemocratic and authoritarian response.”

Lawyers and tech experts say Twitter and other social networks are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are required to abide by the laws of the land, but they also call on them to defend free speech in the world’s largest democracy.

“I think they are fighting a losing battle because, on the one hand, they are suing the government, and on the other hand, they tend to give in,” said Salman Waris, a lawyer for TechLegis in New York. Delhi, who specializes in international technology law.

Mujib Mashal made a report.