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Jillian C. York

Twitter and India play tug-of-war with democracy

Twitter suspended the accounts the government claimed to be in violation of the law [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 February, 2021

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Comment: In India, an increasingly authoritarian government combined with Twitter's willingness to put stakeholders before users raises questions over freedom of speech, writes Jillian C. York.
Amid protests in India against three agricultural reform acts passed last September, the government - led by the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP) - has cracked down on dissenting voices online, demanding that social media platforms remove posts criticising the government's conduct.

Twitter at first made a laudable effort to stand up to the government, but later backed down, complying with requests in a move that indicates the company's willingness to put profit before people. Twitter's move is extremely disappointing, but - for those who know the company's history -  is simply one more in a long pattern of poor decisions that prioritise shareholders over users.

How it all went down

In late January, the government sent notice to Twitter, demanding the removal of 257 tweets and accounts that it claimed caused threat to public order. The Silicon Valley-based company at first complied with the order, but after receiving criticism - particularly for the inclusion of accounts belonging to a Bollywood star and a popular news site, Caravan - the company reversed its decision and was met with a notice from the Indian government.

India then doubled down, demanding the removal of more than 1,000 more accounts that it claimed had originated in Pakistan. Following a meeting with government officials, Twitter relented, suspending the accounts that the government claimed to be in violation of the law and stating:

Twitter's compliance with less-than-democratic governments stands in stark contrast to its stated commitment to the open exchange of information

"Twitter is guided by principles of transparency and empowering the public conversation. If we receive a valid legal request about potentially illegal content on Twitter, we review it under the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter's Rules, the content will be removed from the service.

"If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in the location only. In all cases, we notify the account holder directly, so they're aware we've received a legal order pertaining to the account. Our goal is to respect local law while protecting our foundational principles of free expression."

The company did not, according to reports, challenge the government's orders in court, despite provisions within Indian law that would allow it to do so.

Between a rock and a hard place

What puts Twitter in a tough spot is the fact that the social media company has offices inside of India, creating liability for its employees if it refuses a legal demand from the government. It is therefore caught in a game of cat-and-mouse with India's increasingly authoritarian ruling party.

Read more:  India arrests activist over protest 'toolkit' shared by Greta Thunberg

This is not a new phenomenon - although Twitter once referred to itself as the "free speech wing of the free speech party" and famously stood up for free expression following the 2011 Arab uprisingsdeclaring that "the tweets must flow," the company quickly engaged in an about-face a year later, removing content at the request of the governments of Russia and Pakistan, despite being outside of the jurisdiction of each country.

Although Twitter has always been transparent about the content it removes, publishing regular reports about its practices and publishing notices in place of removed tweets, its compliance with less-than-democratic governments stands in stark contrast to its stated commitment to the open exchange of information.

To be clear, Twitter does have a choice in whether or not it obeys local laws, but refusal comes with a price: If the company were to stand up to India (or any other government, for that matter), it would risk getting blocked wholesale.

A decade ago, this was a risk that some platforms were willing to take. Throughout 2007 and 2008, there were numerous stories of governments blocking social media websites - Tunisia, Kuwait, Turkey, Bahrain, the UAE, and Iran among them. But as time wore on and technology improved, companies found ways to comply with local laws without fully censoring speech, namely through the practice of geoblocking, or locally blocking content.

One of the first examples of this practice occurred when a Turkish judge ordered the country's telcos to block access to YouTube following the company's refusal to remove videos insulting to the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. YouTube compromised by removing the videos locally.

While most companies did so by blocking IP addresses, Twitter engaged in a sneakier practice; that is, by utilising a user's own self-identified location. As such, a user based in India could simply change their location in Twitter's settings to see locally-banned content.

Twitter, as well as its competitors, made their fortunes by promoting a vision of free expression

Rising authoritarianism and Silicon Values

Twitter, as well as its competitors, made their fortunes by promoting a vision of free expression, and promising to make the world a more connected place, but the companies' ideals soon collided with the reality of doing business globally, and particularly in countries where free expression is a lower priority than security, safety - and indeed, control.

As Twitter explained in their aforementioned 2012 blog post, "almost every country in the world agrees that freedom of expression is a human right. Many countries also agree that freedom of expression carries with it responsibilities and has limits."

Some of those limits - such as Germany's ban on Holocaust denial - are arguably in line with international human rights frameworks and treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while others - such as Saudi Arabia's successful 2017 demand that several tech companies censor journalistic content from rival Qatar - are clearly not.

Their ideals soon collided with the reality of doing business globally, and particularly in countries where free expression is a lower priority than security

India's ruling BJP has demonstrated over the past few years that its restrictions on freedom fall closer to the latter example, as it has risen under the auspices of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Some of the party's major players have specifically used Twitter to peddle hate speech and misinformation.

Ironically, party members have been critical of Twitter's January decision to ban then-sitting US president Donald Trump, calling it a "dangerous precedent" and stating that "big tech firms are now the new oligarchs."

This is simply as disingenuous as Trump's own cries of censorship at his removal amid violence in the US Capitol in early January. Although Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other Silicon Valley companies certainly exercise too much power over our expression - demonstrated both by their own practices and their compliance with authoritarian states - governments are just as much to blame for the current conditions.

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist whose work examines the impact of technology on our societal and cultural values. Based in Berlin, she is the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a fellow at the Center for Internet & Human Rights at the European University Viadrina, and a visiting professor at the College of Europe Natolin.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.

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