Twitter sues Indian government over blocking orders

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NEW DELHI — Twitter took the Indian government to court on Tuesday over orders to take down content, the first time the company has filed a legal challenge against authorities here amid a widening internet crackdown.

The latest content removal and account suspension orders, which Twitter executed on Monday, were described as “arbitrary” and “disproportionate,” according to sources familiar with the filing, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. The company did not specify which removal orders it is challenging.

With more than 38 million users, India is Twitter’s fourth-largest market, according to 2021 estimates by Insider Intelligence, a market research firm. The case is likely to escalate tensions with the government, which is increasingly seeking to regulate social media platforms by tightening legislation and policing user activity.

Rajiv Chandrasekhar, India’s junior information technology minister, told The Washington Post that he had not yet seen the legal filing. “Everyone in India, including Twitter, has a right to a court and judicial review,” he said. “But also, any intermediary operating in India has an unequivocal obligation to comply with our laws.”

Digital rights advocates have condemned India’s recent moves to regulate internet companies and monitor content. Authorities tried to censor tweets critical on the government’s handling of the pandemic and recently they arrested a journalist over a four-year-old tweet about a Hindu god.

New rules issued last year oblige social media companies to appoint India-based complaints officers to fulfill takedown requests from the government or risk criminal liability. Twitter has already been reprimanded by a local court for this non-appointment these officials within the specified period. Police in the state of Uttar Pradesh also summoned the company’s top executive in India for failing to take down a viral video of alleged communal violence.

The government recently moved to require Indian companies to store user data and track usage history, prompting leading virtual private network services like ExpressVPN to pull out of the country. The company described the order as an attempt to “restrict internet freedom”.

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In the current lawsuit, filed in Bangalore, Twitter is seeking judicial review on multiple grounds, including procedural flaws, citing the government’s failure to notify users whose accounts were targeted. Several takedown orders related to content posted by vetted political party leaders, Twitter said, arguing that censoring such information would violate free speech.

According to a transparency report filed by Twitter covering the period from January to June 2021, India was among the top five countries demanding content be removed, joining Japan, Russia, Turkey and South Korea. The company has received nearly 5,000 legal requests to remove content in India and has complied with about 12 percent of them, the report revealed.

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Twitter’s legal challenge is a “significant development that will affect the free expression” of social media users in India, said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.

Takedown orders are issued in secret, Gupta said, making it difficult for users to challenge them. Many of them target tweets and handles expressing “criticism or dissent, not any illegality,” he added, citing Twitter disclosures in the Lumen database, a US site that analyzes legal complaints and takedown requests.

The report to Lumen revealed that the Indian government asked Twitter last year to block accounts and tweets from journalists, politicians and civil society.

Multiple Twitter accounts supporting protests against controversial agricultural law are currently blocked in India, a farmers’ union said in late June. Also hidden from view are tweets about the global decline of Internet freedom from Freedom House, a US-based nonprofit that tracks democracy and human rights.

In a June 30 tweet, the group expressed concern about the government’s restrictions on online speech, noting that human rights defenders and journalists in the country “they often face this kind of censorship.”

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