Twitter relents in its standoff with Indian government over farmer protest tweets

February 10, 2021, 12:58 PM UTC

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The Indian government’s efforts to clamp down on social media and Internet activity related to the months-long farmer protests against pro-market agricultural reforms have extended to Twitter, which on Wednesday blocked hundreds of Twitter accounts in India on government orders.

The account restrictions are the latest development in a standoff between Twitter and the Indian government that began at the start of the month over tweets related to the protests.

According to Twitter, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology sent Twitter “several separate blocking orders” over the past 10 days to restrict content under India’s Information Technology Act, passed in 2000, which gives the government power to cut off public access to information on the Internet for reasons of national security.

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Twitter didn’t specify how many blocking orders it received in total, or when within the 10 days the notices arrived. But it said that it complied with two of the orders last week, when it temporarily blocked 250 accounts in India, including the Twitter profile of Indian investigative journalism outlet The Caravan and accounts run by activist groups sharing information about the protests.

Hours after taking the action, though, Twitter restored the 250 accounts following public outcry and claims of political censorship.

The Indian government responded by issuing the platform a noncompliance notice, and, according to Buzzfeed News, said Twitter’s India-based employees could face fines and even up to seven years in jail if the U.S. firm didn’t comply with the government’s request.

The IT ministry reportedly told Twitter that the accounts it wanted restricted were “spreading misinformation about protests” and could potentially incite violence.

On Wednesday, Twitter fell in line with the orders and blocked access to hundreds of accounts within India. The accounts remain accessible outside India, the tech company said. Employee safety concerns reportedly factored into Twitter’s Wednesday decision to comply with the orders.

“Safety of our employees is a top priority for us at Twitter,” the company said in a Tuesday statement.

Twitter said on Wednesday that it will “continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve, and are exploring options under Indian law.” The company said Wednesday’s restrictions did not include “news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians,” and said the accounts it did end up blocking had violated its rules around inciting violence and making threats that could lead to “offline harm.”

The government orders to Twitter are the latest in a series of actions by Indian authorities in recent weeks to intensify a crackdown on political dissent related to the farmer protests, which are widely considered one of the most significant political challenges to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Much of the crackdown involves government efforts to tighten rules on the Internet.

After a Jan. 26 farmers’ rally in Delhi where some protesters clashed with police, who responded with tear gas and batons, authorities arrested protesters and some journalists and fortified the city borders with barricades, metal spikes, and police reinforcements. Authorities also cut the Internet in parts of the city where protesting farmers congregated.

The protest movement, which is calling for the repeal of three farm laws that aim to liberalize India’s agricultural sector, gained additional social media traction earlier this month when pop superstar Rihanna posted an article on Twitter about India’s government blocking Internet access in areas where the protesters were located. Rihanna’s post had nearly 1 million likes as of Wednesday.

A day after Rihanna’s post, India’s Ministry of External Affairs released a statement criticizing “sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others.”