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Twitter upped the stakes of a free speech fight with India. Is it ready for the consequences?

July 6, 2022, 5:59 PM UTC
An audience member cheers Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
The power of the tweet versus the power of India's leader.
THOMAS SHEA—AFP/Getty Images

Twitter picked a high-stakes fight with the government of India on Tuesday, setting the stage for a showdown that will test the company’s commitment to free speech.

After more than a year of squabbling with Indian lawmakers over strict new censorship laws in the Asian nation, Twitter has taken the dispute to court and is suing the government over “arbitrary” and “disproportionate” orders requiring the company to remove content and block accounts, The Washington Post reported. 

Twitter didn’t specify which orders it was challenging, but the ruling Indian government has sought in recent months to squelch dissenting voices criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist leadership. The New York Times reported that the lawsuit follows “a recent order from the Indian government for the company to remove content and block dozens of accounts.”

For Twitter, which has faced pressure from Indian government officials over its reluctance to comply with the new laws, it’s a high-risk move that could thrust the company into deeper conflict with New Delhi. 

To date, Twitter officials have battled with Indian leaders over censorship demands outside of courtrooms. 

Twitter has batted back most requests, reporting that it complied with only 12% of legal demands to remove or hide content in India in the first half of 2021, far below its global compliance rate of 54%. The company hasn’t commented on how it’s able to fend so many off. 

Government officials, however, have used high-profile intimidation tactics against Twitter’s leaders in the country, at one point visiting the company’s offices after it labeled a political official’s tweet as “manipulated media.” 

With Tuesday’s lawsuit, Twitter is taking the fight into the open. Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser in India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, hit back at Twitter on Tuesday, tweeting: “Sovereign laws of India are supreme, not @Twitter wokery. India’s rules will decide what Twitter can and can’t, not an intermediary’s mumbo-jumbo. Compliance is must.”

Before lionizing Twitter too much, it’s worth noting that the lawsuit doesn’t seek to overturn India’s strict censorship laws. Rather, Twitter argues that Indian officials “interpreted those laws too broadly,” the Times reported.

If Twitter loses this battle, however, the defeat would put the company in a precarious position. 

A victory for Modi would likely further embolden his administration’s crackdown on political opponents and press freedom, potentially making Twitter an accomplice to this effort. Twitter’s most recent transparency report showed that Indian authorities issued 89 legal demands to censor verified journalists and news organizations in the first half of 2021, the highest total in the world. (Turkey, Russia, and Pakistan combined for 117 orders, while the U.S. made zero.)

In that case, Twitter must decide whether the financial cost of operating in India is worth the reputational damage. 

Various reports Tuesday indicated that Twitter has somewhere between 25 million and 50 million active users in India, a nation of 1.4 billion people often seen as a growth target for tech companies. While Twitter doesn’t specify its India-based revenue in public financial reports, those user totals suggest the company could lose hundreds of millions of dollars by pulling out of the country.

Ultimately, this quandary likely won’t land in the lap of Twitter’s current leadership, but rather the company’s prospective $44 billion buyer, Elon Musk. (Assuming, of course, that Musk doesn’t abandon the deal, which is set to close later this year.)

For all of Musk’s free speech proselytizing in the U.S., he’s been conspicuously silent about India. In fact, Musk’s comments to date suggest he’d capitulate to the Modi regime. As evidence, see this tweet from late April: “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”

Twitter and the Modi administration were bound to butt heads in court over free speech. The question now is how far Twitter, and perhaps Musk, are willing to take this fight.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter

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