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'Playing with fire': Twitter's India snub sparks debate on compliance, free speech

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Sankalp Phartiyal and Aditya Kalra
·3 min read
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* Twitter faces backlash from Indian govt, lawmakers

* U.S. firm declines to remove content despite India govtorder

* Indian lawmaker says Twitter acting like lawmakers

* Twitter has said it complies with "properly scoped"requests

By Sankalp Phartiyal and Aditya Kalra

NEW DELHI, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Twitter Inc's refusalto comply with an Indian government directive to block more than250 accounts and posts has put the social media giant at thecentre of a political firestorm in one of its key markets.

Government officials, business people and ordinary netizensare split over free speech and the U.S. company's compliancepractices, in a controversy that comes soon after Twitter's toplobbyist in India resigned.

The showdown, after the firm this week "declined to abide(by) and obey" the order to remove posts and accounts that thegovernment said risked inciting violence, is the latest instanceof worsening relationships between Prime Minister NarendraModi's administration and U.S. social media platforms likeFacebook and WhatsApp.

For Twitter, the stakes are high in a country of 1.3 billionwhere it has millions of users and is ardently used by Modi, hiscabinet ministers and other leaders to communicate with thepublic.

Farmers are conducting a growing protest against newagriculture laws, with tens of thousands camping out on theoutskirts of New Delhi and launching a nationwide road blockadeon Saturday.

As the prolonged crisis escalated, the government this weeksought an "emergency blocking" of the "provocative" Twitterhashtag "#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide" and dozens of accounts.

Twitter initially complied but later restored most of theaccounts, citing "insufficient justification" to continue thesuspensions. The technology ministry warned the company, in aletter seen by Reuters, of legal "consequences" that couldinclude fines or jail, saying the government was not required tojustify its demand to ban accounts.

Twitter's public policy director Mahima Kaul recentlyresigned from her role, two sources said. A LinkedIn ad showedthe company is seeking candidates for the key governmentrelations position.

Kaul did not respond to a request for comment.

Twitter confirmed Kaul's resignation, saying she would stayon through March and was helping with the transition, butotherwise declined to comment. It said this week that itwithholds access to content on receiving a "properly scopedrequest from an authorized entity".


Free speech activists say the government should not attemptto use legal provisions to muzzle freedom of expression, whileothers argue Twitter should comply or go to court.

"Twitter is playing with fire," said an Indian social mediaexecutive who was surprised by the company's non-compliance. "Ifthere is a legal request, you are required to take down content.You are free to challenge it" in court.

In 2019, a parliamentary panel headed by a lawmaker fromModi's Hindu nationalist party warned Twitter after CEO JackDorsey failed to appear before the committee. The previous yearDorsey sparked a social media storm after a picture of himholding a poster saying "smash Brahminical patriarchy",referring to the highest Hindu caste, went viral.

This week, Dorsey became a talking point on Indian TV newsafter he liked a tweet suggesting the company should considerintroducing a farmer protest emoji.

Meenakashi Lekhi, a lawmaker from Modi's party who heads aparliamentary panel on data privacy, criticised Twitter fordisobeying government orders, adding she has yet to decidewhether to summon company executives.

"Twitter needs to understand they are not lawmakers," Lekhitold Reuters. "It is not their policy which will work, it is thepolicy of the state, country which will work."

Calling the showdown "inevitable", the Hindu newspaper saidin a Friday editorial: "Provocative posts have no place on anyplatform, (but) free speech should not be hit."

Prasanth Sugathan of Software Freedom Law Center India,said, "The selective government approach to ask social mediacompanies to ban content when it doesn't suit the officialnarrative is problematic.

"It stifles free speech and press freedom."(Reporting by Sankalp Phartiyal and Aditya Kalra; Editing byWilliam Mallard)