As the coronavirus pandemic rages in India, claiming thousands of lives, many Indians are turning to social media to demand that the government better address the public health crisis. And now the government is silencing these critics in its latest threat to the future of internet free speech in the second most populous country in the world.
In recent weeks, the Indian government has been asking companies to like Twitter removes content which is said to contain misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. But critics say India's political leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using the premise of misinformation to outdo and quell criticism of the government's handling of the pandemic.
A similar debate has also taken place in the US about how companies like Twitter and Facebook should moderate harmful expressions on their platforms, especially when that speech comes from world leaders. But the problem has become more intense in India, where the government is more aggressively and directly pushing tech companies to block content it is having problems with.
"Internet companies are stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Anupam Chander, a law professor at Georgetown University who focuses on the regulation of international speech online. “They are faced with a government accusing them of essentially cooperating in a violation of the law. At the same time, there are huge concerns about free speech here. "
India is the largest democracy in the world and has a history of vigorous political debate. The constitution protects people's right to freedom of expression and expression – with some exceptions, including for content it considers defamatory.
But under Modi's rule in recent years, the country has expanded its internet regulatory laws, giving it more power to censor and monitor its citizens online. The government has several levers to pressure US-based tech companies: It could arrest Facebook and Twitter personnel in India if their employers don't follow orders. In fact, India could completely rip Twitter or Facebook off the local internet in India, as it did recently TikTok and several major Chinese apps in June. And the government effectively took refuge shut down the internet in Kashmir in February 2020, when it sought to calm political disagreements in the region.
Now, tensions between American social media companies and the Indian government have reached an all-time high due to the fierce debate over Modi's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And what happens next could determine whether Indians will continue to have the same kind of access to a relatively open social media environment or whether the walls around what people are allowed to say online will close even more in India. Some fear that the country may become more like China, where the government tightly controls its residents' access to information and where US technology giants such as Google and Facebook have tried – but failed – to operate successfully.
What happened to recent deletions?
In recent days, Twitter and Facebook have removed or blocked political content critical of the Indian government.
Facebook confirmed that on Wednesday temporarily blocked messages with a #ResignModi hashtag in India, but later it said it was a mistake due to content related to the hashtag violating the policy. Facebook has since restored access to the hashtag.
Facebook declined to comment on how many or what takedown requests it has received from the Indian government in recent weeks. A source familiar with the company said that Facebook took away only a small fraction of the total number of requests received.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter is more transparent and makes removal requests public through an outside organization, Lumen. Twitter acknowledged that the Indian government has asked her to delete a few dozen tweets recently, dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in India, as first reported by Indian news site MediaNama.
Recoding has it more than 50 tweets that Twitter has blocked or removed at the request of the Indian government in recent weeks. Although some could be considered misleading, including a viral image showing havoc in India could be related to the pandemic that was Indian fact-checker AltNews is reportedly out of date – it was not clear what was misleading about several other reports, which clearly appeared to be news and political commentary.
For example, one of the blocked tweets is a link to a Vice news article about a massive Hindu religious bathing ritual held in the River Ganges during the most recent wave of Covid-19 – which is widely reported in other outlets also. Another is one satirical cartoon with a caricature of Modi He spoke over burning coffins, with the prime minister saying, "I have never seen crowds so crowded at a meeting."
India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which submits takedown requests to social media companies on behalf of the Government of India, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Modi's BJP party also did not respond to a request for comment.
In response to Recode's questions about how Twitter decides which messages to block or delete, a Twitter spokesperson emailed Recode with the following statement:
When we receive a valid legal request, we will review it under both Twitter rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter's rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is found to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but does not violate the Twitter Rules, we may refuse access to the content in India only.
The company also said it will notify account holders directly when they receive legal order related to their account.
Many advocates of free speech are quick to accuse social media companies such as Twitter of giving in too easily to pressure from the Indian government. In the past, the company has taken a more aggressive and public stance against the Modi government – as it did in February it refused to block political activists and journalists who used Twitter to criticize the Indian government's new agricultural reforms, which many farmers in India have been protesting for months.
Now, during the pandemic, companies like Twitter are re-testing their willingness to obey the orders of the Indian government – and run the risk of being shut down completely if they don't obey.
"It's easy for us to say that Twitter shouldn't do this. But the question is whether it wants to continue to operate in the Indian market," said Chander. "It's a very complicated dance."
One way that American social media companies could take is to try to challenge the government's recent removal requests in Indian courts, which Chander says are relatively independent of Modi.
The US government, which has a close relationship with India, could also put pressure on Modi's government to reduce its grip on social media. Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the Indian government is ordering social media companies to block messages critical of the government "would certainly not be in line with our vision of freedom of expression around the world."
The White House has other diplomatic power it could use, such as threatening to break trade deals or other diplomatic relations between the two countries. For now, the White House is focusing on the larger issue of vaccine distribution in India. This week, under increasing global pressure, the government announced its course and Export Covid-19 vaccine materials to the country. So far, there has been no public evidence that the Biden government is considering taking diplomatic measures in connection with the country's stance on social media.
Regardless, it is clear that there is a growing battle between the Indian government and US social media companies. What happens next will be a sign of where the future of free speech in the country appears to be headed.