With the government and Twitter at loggerheads over issues related to content removal and freedom of expression, the Centre on Wednesday expressed “deep disappointment” over Twitter’s partial compliance to its orders “grudgingly” and with substantial delay.
In a video-conference meeting with Twitter’s vice president-global public policy, Monique Meche, and deputy general counsel and vice president-legal, Jim Baker, Information Technology Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney said that while Twitter was free to formulate its own rules and guidelines, Indian laws, which are enacted by the Parliament of India, must be followed irrespective of Twitter’s own rules, according to a Ministry statement.
An official source told The Hindu that during the meeting, requested by Twitter, the microblogging platform was informed that the government expected full compliance of the blocking orders and the Centre was unlikely to revisit its list.
The U.S.-headquartered firm has been under fire from the government over non-compliance to block 250 accounts using hashtags related to “farmer genocide”, and about 1,178 accounts that security agencies suspect are backed by Khalistani sympathisers and Pakistan.
The meeting follows a blog post by Twitter, where it said it had withheld “a portion of the accounts identified in the blocking orders given by the government”. It, however, added that no action had been taken against the accounts of news media entities, journalists, activists and politicians. “To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law. We informed MeitY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) of our enforcement actions today, February 10, 2021,” Twitter said.
In a detailed blog post, Twitter also added that it had taken a range of enforcement actions, including permanent suspension of accounts in certain cases, against more than 500 accounts escalated across all Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) orders for clear violations of Twitter’s Rules.
“At any point in time, lawful order given by an authorised/empowered entity... is not up for negotiations,” the source said, adding that similar orders were sent to other platforms, including YouTube and Facebook, and they had complied with the orders.
The Ministry statement added that the Secretary had told Twitter representatives that while India had a robust mechanism for protection of freedom of speech and expression, “freedom of expression is not absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions as mentioned in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India”.
On the issue of the use of the hashtag related to “farmer genocide” on Twitter, the Secretary “expressed strong displeasure on the way Twitter acted after an emergency order was issued to remove this hashtag and content related to that. Spreading misinformation using an incendiary and baseless hashtag...at a time when such irresponsible content can provoke and inflame the situation is neither journalistic freedom nor freedom of expression as envisaged under Article 19 of the Constitution of India”.
Drawing a parallel between the incident at Red Fort in Delhi on Republic Day to the violence at the Capitol Hill in the United States, the Secretary highlighted the differential treatment in the two incidents, expressing a deep sense of disappointment with Twitter’s siding not with freedom of expression but rather with :those who sought to abuse such freedom and provoke disturbance to public order.
“Lawfully passed orders are binding on any business entity. They must be obeyed immediately. If they are executed days later, it becomes meaningless,” the Secretary stressed.
MeitY said the Twitter leadership had affirmed its commitment towards following Indian laws and rules. Twitter had also expressed its continuing commitment towards building its services in India, and had requested better engagement between the Government of India and Twitter’s global team.