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 criminal proceedings. They say it also stated that the company would lose its “safe harbor” protections, 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 have increased significantly in the past 18 months.
Last week, Twitter responded: It will take the Indian government to court.
While the dispute itself deals with only specific accounts and pieces of content, experts told WIRED that its outcome could have major repercussions, and be a “bellwether for this ongoing battle about internet freedom,” says Allie Funk, research director for technology and democracy at Freedom House.
Twitter’s lawsuit focuses particularly on section 69A of India’s Information Technology laws. Passed in 2000, the laws allow the government to issue blocking orders, requiring an intermediary–in this case, Twitter–to remove content that the government deems a risk to India’s security or sovereignty. The court filing is not yet public, but it asserts that the government’s requests are excessive, sometimes targeting entire accounts, according to sources familiar with the filing.
Jason Pielemeier, executive director at the Global Network Initiative, says that Twitter’s lawsuit has implications beyond social media platforms. “It will reverberate for all intermediaries,” he said. “Intermediaries as defined by Indian law includes mobile network operators, includes the ISPs. So it’s really applicable to everyone who could be seen as a choke point for content restriction or censorship.” Should Twitter lose in court, it could open the way for the government to censor whole websites, and media on streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime, and make it harder for platforms and companies to push back.
“Around 2010 or 2011, the government framed the rules for those [earlier] powers,” says Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now. These newer additions to the law in 2009 prevented platforms from publicly disclosing the blocking orders they received. “Even at that time, there was a lot of criticism saying that the rules gave all the power to the executive branch.” Twitter’s case does not seek to challenge the constitutionality of 69A, but instead alleges that some of the blocking orders do not meet the government’s own standards for establishing why content needs to be removed, and violate the rights of users’ rights to free speech.
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 seek 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 asserted that Thakur’s site promoted dowries, which are illegal in India, but persist in many places regardless. In 2018, Thakur told Outlook India that the site was meant to point out this “prominent social evil.”