Twitter Blocks over 500 Accounts at India’s Request, Then Changes Course

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Twitter said on Wednesday it would not fully comply with an Indian government order to suspend hundreds of accounts accused by New Delhi of spreading misinformation and inciting violence in the nation’s ongoing farmers’ protests. It made the statement after blocking over 500 accounts last week.

“We have withheld a portion of the accounts identified in the blocking orders … within India only. These accounts continue to be available outside of India,” Twitter wrote in a blog post on February 10. “Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians.”

“To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law,” the social media platform added.

Twitter temporarily blocked more than 500 accounts last week, including some belonging to news websites and protest activists at the request of India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). The company reversed its decision within hours in the face of online outrage, however, restoring access to the suspended accounts. The action prompted the Indian government to serve Twitter with a non-compliance notice.

“After Twitter lifted the block, New Delhi issued a more serious warning to Twitter and its executives, citing the nation’s Section 69A, which allows ‘punishment with an imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fines,'” Tech Crunch recalled on February 10.

New Delhi responded to Twitter’s blog post later Wednesday, tweeting that the company had earlier reached out to MeitY for a meeting.

“In this light a blog post published prior to this engagement is unusual,” the tech ministry said, adding that the Indian government would formally respond to Twitter’s blog post soon.

Tens of thousands of farmers have occupied the area encircling India’s national capital, New Delhi, since November to protest three agricultural reforms passed by the Indian Congress in September that they claim have threatened their traditional farm price and labor protections. New Delhi maintains that the reforms are designed to help both farmers and consumers by streamlining India’s agricultural supply chain. The majority of the farmers have traveled to the capital area from the Sikh-dominated state of Punjab and neighboring Haryana state.

The protests turned violent on January 26 after the farmers defied government orders to march on pre-approved routes. Thousands of farmers broke through police-laid barriers to enter central New Delhi on “tractors, motorbikes, horses, and even cranes.” A mob of farmers overtook police stationed at Delhi’s Red Fort, storming the historic site. One farmer died in the melee after his tractor overturned, and more than 300 hundred police officers were injured.

The Indian government had issued several blocking orders to Twitter over the past ten days in which it identified “a number of accounts it said used provocative hashtags to spread misinformation about the protests as well as [to] incite violence. The government invoked an information technology law under which it has the power to direct online intermediaries and internet service providers to block certain content,” according to the Associated Press on Wednesday.

New Delhi expressed specific concern in one of its orders that many Twitter users were sharing false and intimidating statements, including the use of the Twitter hashtag #modiplanningfarmersgenocide.

“Incitement to genocide is a grave threat to public order and therefore the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) ordered for blocking of these Twitter accounts and Tweets under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act,” an Indian government source allegedly told Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist Bhuvan Bagga last week.

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