KEY POINTS

  • "Make money but you will have to abide by Indian laws and the Constitution:" India's IT minister 
  • New Delhi calls out Twitter's "double standards" over Capitol Hill riots and violence at the Red Fort
  • The government posted a response to Twitter's blog on Koo, an Indian social-media app
  • Twitter's top India execs in danger of up to seven years in jail over non-compliance
  • India is a key market for Twitter; the stock closed up 13.20% on the NYSE on Wednesday

Twitter's top management in India, a key market, is at risk of being sent to jail after the social media company chose to only partially comply with a government order to block certain accounts that were allegedly inciting violence in the guise of supporting the ongoing farmers' protests in the country. 

Ravi Shankar Prasad, India's minister for Electronics and Information Technology, who has the power to regulate the conduct of social media companies according to Indian law, warned in Parliament on Thursday that action will be taken if social media is misused to spread fake news and violence. Twitter has been issued a non-compliance notice by the government under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, which can lead to seven years in jail and fines for the company's Indian leadership, legal experts have told media outlets.

Twitter has millions of users, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who uses it effectively to communicate his government's policies. But Prasad told Parliament, referring to Twitter, "Make money but you will have to abide by Indian laws and the Constitution." 

Modi's government first ordered hundreds of accounts to be blocked following violence in New Delhi on Jan. 26, India's Republic Day. These accounts, it said, were used to trend hashtags to provoke violence, including one that said #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide. Rioters had stormed the Red Fort in Delhi after clashes with police and flown a separatist flag there. Twitter only partially complied with the government's demand to take down accounts spreading misinformation and provoking violence, and by its own admission that it "temporarily" blocked some of the accounts. It was hit by more such requests from the government in the days that followed. 

"We have now flagged Twitter," Prasad told Parliament. "Our department has engaged with Twitter. That's why I didn't want to comment on this issue outside and chose the House to raise these questions. What is the matter that when there is violence in U.S. Capitol Hill, social media platforms stand by police investigation but when (the) Red Fort is breached, the same platforms go against the Indian government? Red Fort is the symbol of our pride. We won't allow these double standards." 

Twitter had quickly blocked former President Donald Trump’s account and suspended more than 70,000 other accounts following the insurrection on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6.

The IT ministry also separately called out Twitter for the "differential treatment." The Hindu reported that the government told the company to respect Indian laws and democratic institutions and that it expects full and quick compliance of its orders, quoting an unnamed official source.

In a sign of escalation, the ministry chose to respond to Twitter on Koo, a made-in-India app similar to the American microblogging site.

"Playing With Fire"

Twitter has attributed its decision not to comply with the government' order to its fundamental values and commitment to protecting “public conversation” and freedom of speech. But Prasad's ministry told Twitter that while India had a robust mechanism for protection of freedom of speech and expression, “freedom of expression is not absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions as mentioned in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India.”

Reuters reported citing an unnamed Indian social media executive that by choosing not to comply with the government's order, Twitter was "playing with fire.” The expert pointed out that Twitter can challenge the order in court, but it is required to take down the content first.

The Financial Express quoted Pawan Duggal, an expert on Indian cyber law, that Section 69A of the IT Act gives the government supreme powers to interpret law and order, security, sovereignty, etc., of the nation, and that intermediaries like Twitter are bound to follow the orders of the government. “If every intermediary starts interpreting the law on its own, then there would be chaos,” Duggal said. “If any intermediary has a problem, it can approach the court, that’s the only way out," he added.

On Wednesday the government said that “lawfully passed orders are binding on any business entity and must be obeyed immediately,” after the company said in a blog post that “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.” 

The blog post was not taken kindly to by the Indian government. Prasad turned down Twitter's request to meet; instead, Monique Meche, Twitter’s vice-president, global public policy, and Jim Baker, its deputy general counsel and vice-president, legal, met with IT secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney, the top bureaucrat in the ministry, via video conferencing Wednesday.

"(The IT) Secretary took up the issue of using a hashtag on ‘farmer genocide’ with Twitter executives and expressed strong displeasure on the way Twitter acted after an emergency order was issued to remove this hashtag and content related to that. Spreading misinformation using an incendiary and baseless hashtag referring to "farmer genocide" at a time when such irresponsible content can provoke and inflame the situation is neither journalistic freedom nor freedom of expression as envisaged under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. Despite the attention of Twitter being drawn to such content by the government through a lawful process, the platform allowed the content with this hashtag to continue, which was extremely unfortunate,” the ministry said in a statement.

Twitter had said it was exploring options under Indian law.

On Tuesday, Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) reported its fourth-quarter revenue for 2020 rose 28% to $1.29 billion. Its monetizable daily active users increased 27% to 192 million, sequentially, in the quarter. The company expects headcount growth of more than 20% this year, and expects overall expenses to increase more than 25%. The stock closed at $67.77, up 13.20%, on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday.

Twitter Twitter logo. Photo: AFP / Olivier DOULIERY