India threatened to block Twitter, raid employees: former CEO Jack Dorsey

The former Twitter CEO said that Twitter’s new CEO and owner, Elon Musk, may face pressure from India and China to take down content

June 13, 2023 07:44 am | Updated 05:45 pm IST - New Delhi

Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. File.

Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. File. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Former Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey said that the Indian government had threatened to shut down the social media network in the country. 

“India is a country that had many requests of us around the farmers’ protests, around particular journalists that were critical of the government,” Mr. Dorsey said on June 12 in an interview with Breaking Points, a YouTube channel. “And it manifested in ways such as, ‘we’ll shut Twitter down in India’ — which is a very large market for us — ‘we’re going to raid the homes of your employees’ — which they did — ‘we will shut down your offices if you don’t follow suit’ — and this is India, a democratic country,” he elaborated.

Also read | How Twitter fell out of favour with the Union government?

Mr. Dorsey added that India had demanded “contact information” tied to certain accounts in addition to shutting them down, and speculated that the governments of India and China could apply pressure on Elon Musk to get their way on the platform, an apparent reference to Mr. Musk’s other business interests that have operations in the two countries, such as Tesla vehicles.

While Twitter has decried a search at one of its offices by Delhi Police in 2021 as a form of intimidation, neither the company nor the Indian government has previously claimed or disclosed that individual employees’ homes were at risk of being raided, or that it was threatened that Twitter would be shut down. (One anonymous IT Ministry official had told a newspaper in 2021 that employee arrests may be considered.)

“This is an outright lie by” Mr. Dorsey, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology said in a response posted on Twitter. “No one went to jail nor was Twitter ‘shutdown,’” Mr. Chandrasekhar said, saying that Twitter had continuously resisted Indian laws until July 2022, when it “finally complied”. 

“India as a sovereign nation has the right to ensure that its laws are followed by all companies operating in India,” Mr. Chandrasekhar said. “During the protests in January 2021, there was a lot of misinformation and even reports of genocide which were definitely fake.” This is an apparent reference to the baseless hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide, which the IT Ministry sought to crack down on.

Account blocking history 

Entire accounts, as opposed to individual tweets, were ordered to be taken down, such as the Twitter profile of The Caravan magazine, the profile of actor Sushant Singh, an account associated with the Kisan Ekta Morcha, and activist Hansraj Meena. While Twitter initially complied, it restored access to the accounts following free speech concerns, earning the government’s ire. 

Under Ravi Shankar Prasad, who was then the IT Minister, the firm appeared to arrive at a compromise in February 2021: individual past tweets were blocked as requested by the government, but entire accounts belonging to prominent news outlets, journalists, activists and politicians were to be left up. 

Also read | Twitter defaming India, defying laws, says government

The then-IT Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney had a call with two U.S.-based Twitter executives, and a government readout of the call noted that Twitter had “complied with the substantial parts of the order” to block content, but the accounts named above remained unblocked, and remain so to this day, with the exception of the Kisan Ekta Morcha, which was ordered “withheld” in India at a different point since. 

The detente didn’t hold for long. In May 2021, Twitter labeled some tweets from accounts tied to the BJP as “manipulated media,” following which Delhi Police raided Twitter’s offices in New Delhi and Gurugram, and the IT Ministry demanded that Twitter take down these labels, and that it comply with the remaining blocking orders from earlier. The company took a few more tweets down, and called the police actions a form of intimidation.

Censorship requests

In this time, the demands for censorship from the Indian government continued, most notably in an order to censor 857 tweets, many of which were critical of the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Claims that Twitter censored right wing voices in India have also abounded. Mr. Chandrasekhar for instance has spoken in the past of the Twitter Files, a series of disclosures of internal Twitter documents facilitated by Mr. Musk. In one instance, though, Twitter was presented by a civil society partner with a list of Twitter accounts that were said to be promoting “paid employees or possibly volunteers” of the BJP. 

However, even under previous leadership, Twitter appeared to dismiss this list, saying that after a random check of some of the accounts, the profiles appeared authentic.

Mr. Chandrasekhar’s claim that Twitter “finally complied” with remaining orders omitted two pieces of crucial context: first, that the firm continues to keep up accounts of prominent media organisations, journalists, activists and politicians whose profiles were ordered to be taken down in India; second, that Twitter sued the government in the Karnataka High Court that month for orders it characterised as illegal. 

Change in position?

The company continued to pursue this legal challenge under Mr. Musk, even as the company appeared to be more willing to comply with broad takedown orders — during the manhunt for the pro-Khalistani preacher Amritpal Singh, accounts of journalists such as Kamaldeep Singh Brar were taken down in India (Mr. Brar’s account is currently accessible). The Karnataka High Court in April reserved its judgment in the case. 

The government has, in past years, amended the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, to introduce language that would force social media platforms to permit speech that may be against individual sites’ terms of service, but is permitted under the Constitution, a move that undercuts the concept of safe harbour, the legal immunity a platform enjoys for content posted by users, and also by extension its powers of moderation of content.

Under a forthcoming Digital India Bill, a draft of which Mr. Chandrasekhar said will release this month, the Minister said that the concept of safe harbour itself may be done away with. Meanwhile, social media platforms face increased legal exposure if they do not take down tweets featuring news about the Union Government that has been notified by a government-notified body as misinformation.

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