In June Twitter received an ultimatum from the Indian government to remove some 39 accounts and content from its platform. Sources familiar with the order say it outlined that if Twitter refused to comply, its Chief Compliance Officer could face a criminal case. They say it also stated that the company would lose its “safe harbor” protection, meaning it would no longer be protected from liability for the content created by its own users. This is an escalation of a series of “blocking orders” or content removal orders, sent by the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which has increased significantly within the last 18 months.
Last week, Twitter responded: It will take the Indian government to court.
While the dispute itself only concerns specific accounts and pieces of content, experts told WIRED that its outcome could have major consequences and serve as “the belligerent for this ongoing battle for Internet freedom,” said Allie Funk, research director for technology and democracy. and Freedom House.
Twitter’s lawsuit focuses in particular on section 69A of India’s Information Technology Act. The laws were passed in 2000 and allow the government to issue blocking orders that require an intermediary – in this case Twitter – to remove content that the government considers to be a risk to India’s security or sovereignty. The lawsuit is not yet public, but it claims the government’s requests are exaggerated, sometimes targeting entire accounts, according to sources familiar with the case.
Jason Pielemeier, CEO of the Global Network Initiative, says Twitter’s lawsuit has implications beyond social media platforms. “It will resonate with all intermediaries,” he said. “Mediators as defined by Indian law include mobile network operators as well as ISPs. So it is really applicable to anyone who could be seen as a choking point for content restriction or censorship.” Should Twitter lose out in court, it could open the way for the government to censor entire websites, as well as media on streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime, and it could make it harder for platforms and businesses to push back.
“Around 2010 or 2011, the government drafted the rules for these former powers,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international adviser and policy director for Asia Pacific at Access Now. These recent additions to the law in 2009 prevented platforms from publishing the blocking orders they received. “Even at that time, there was a lot of criticism that said the rules gave all the power to the executive.” Twitter’s case does not seek to challenge the constitutionality of 69A, but instead claims that some of the blocking orders do not live up to the government’s own standards to determine why content should be removed, and that such orders violate users’ right to freedom of expression.
Because India’s IT laws allow the government to issue blocking orders in secret, it makes it particularly difficult for individual users to understand why their content is being censored, or to try to reverse the government’s decision. In 2018, the government issued a blocking order for the satirical website www.dowrycalculator.com, owned by journalist Tanul Thakur, who was not informed why the site was blocked and started a legal battle to find out. The government claimed that Thakur’s website promoted dowry which is illegal in India but continue many places regardless. In 2018, Thakur told Outlook India that the page was intended to point out this “prominent social evil.”