Twitter’s Free Speech But India’s National Security

On Monday, February 8th, Twitter said it was seeking talks with India’s technology minister in response to the country asking the app to take down 1,178 accounts that are supposedly spreading misinformation about the ongoing farmers’ protests. On February 4th, New Delhi wrote to Twitter asking it to remove all accounts which it said were backed by “arch-rival Pakistan or operated by sympathizers of Sikh separatists,” two technology minister sources told Reuters.

As explained by Reuters, Twitter said that it only partially complied with the orders by reducing the visibility of the hashtags that were containing harmful content and suspended accounts that were engaging in “clear examples of platform manipulation and spam.” Over the course of the past couple of months, tens of thousands of farmers have camped on the outskirts of India’s capital New Delhi demanding the withdrawal of new agriculture laws they say benefit private buyers at the expense of growers. This growing conflict in India offered an interesting example of Twitter’s challenge in hewing to its self-proclaimed support of free speech. 

“We continue to be engaged with the government of India from a position of respect and have reached out to the Honourable Minister for a formal dialogue,” a spokeswoman for Twitter in India said, adding that the safety of its local staff was a top company priority. When Twitter first acknowledged the government’s non-compliance noticed they stated that they reviewed all government reports promptly and took action while ensuring it upheld free speech.

“We strongly believe that the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact, and that the Tweets must continue to flow,” the Twitter spokeswoman said as reported by Reuters. “The power used for banning smartphone apps is the same power that is being used to direct Twitter to take down accounts and order internet shutdowns,” said Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, according to the New York Times. 

With the Indian government threatening jail time for Twitter’s India executives, it brings in the problem of free speech. The Indian government has ruled this issue as a matter of national security. However, the California-based company doesn’t necessarily have the same definition. The whole basis of the app is for people to speak their minds and practice free speech. Twitter put in the effort of blocking over 500 accounts, however, the Indian government still issued an order of non-compliance. Twitter specifically said that it was not going to be taking any action on the accounts that belonged to media organizations, journalists, activists, or politicians. The government seems to be taking this free speech platform and trying to control their people with it, which is unethical. Twitter is just doing its best to withhold its power by complying yet not completely giving up free speech. 

Indian farmers have been on the streets since November of last year, in attempts to repeal three new farm laws and demand a minimum support price for their produce. With more than 40 per cent of India’s workforce engaged in agriculture, as reported by the World Bank, these laws are extremely impactful to a large portion of the country. An official government survey done by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development found that in the three years, the average amount of debt that farmers were liable for had doubled. These protests are going to continue and Twitter has done its part to help curb the spread of misinformation without violating free speech. However, according to the New York Times, under Indian Law, Twitter’s Indian executives could face up to seven years in jail and fines if the company fails to abide by the government orders since this is rules as national security. 

Since the largely peaceful agitation has recently been jolted by violence and resulted in death in late January, the government’s requests were out of national security. Twitter complied and did its part to help ease the tension through their end. However, their decision not to block media companies, journalists, activists, and politicians was the ethical thing to do, especially since doing so would “violate their fundamental right to free expression under the Indian law,” as explained in BBC.

The threat to imprison and fine Indian Twitter executives is a misuse of power, since the company complied for the most part, while still honouring free speech. “I think we need to move beyond the rhetoric and move to action if the government really believes that Twitter has violated the law. What is the point of issuing statements, having meetings, when you think they are breaking the law? What is stopping the government from taking action?” Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and editor of MediaNama, a technology policy website told BBC News.