Indian Government Threatens To Jail Twitter Employees For Restoring Accounts The Government Wants Blocked

from the watch-out-what-you-ask-for dept

We keep pointing out to people the very slippery slope that happens when we say it's okay for the government to tell websites how they have to moderate. And what's happening in India is a very important case study. As you're hopefully aware, there have been ongoing farmer protests in India, as farmers are quite upset about regulatory changes that they fear will destroy their businesses. The protests have been going on for weeks, but things have recently escalated to include some violence.

Prime Minister Narendra Mohdi is responding to all of this in a similar fashion to what he's done before: by cracking down on free speech and going after his critics. It started with full internet blackouts in places where the protesters were, with the government claiming it was necessary to cut off the internet to "maintain public safety" (yeah, right). Then, the government demanded that Twitter block the accounts of various journalists, publications, and celebrities who have been critical of Mohdi. Twitter complied, but after widespread criticism, it turned those accounts back on, apparently telling the Indian government that the tweets were protected free speech and newsworthy.

One of the accounts that had been taken down was the Caravan, a small but influential investigative journalism outfit that is widely read among politicians. A writer for Caravan, Vidya Krishnan, has a chilling account in The Atlantic about how this crackdown represents "the end of the Indian Idea." It's well worth reading. It notes that beyond just having the Twitter account shut down, the Mohdi government has arrested a Caravan writer and begun an investigation of its editors.

These latest attacks, part of a pattern of legal cases, personal threats, and intimidation against news outlets and individual journalists, make certain what was becoming evident: The freedom of the press, a constitutional right, is endangered in Modi’s India. The brazen use of social-media networks to censor journalists, the use of the police and courts to silence them, and, more fundamentally, the belief that those who report on protests are somehow undermining the state illustrate how much has changed in India, and how far the country has strayed from its founding ideals.

On Tuesday, the situation became an even more dangerous attack on free speech. It appears that Mohdi's administration is not at all happy with Twitter's decision to push back and re-enable the accounts it demanded blocked. It is now threatening Twitter employees with jailtime and fines for the decision.

On Tuesday, the IT ministry sent a notice to Twitter, ordering it to block the accounts once again. It also threatened people who work at Twitter's Indian arm with legal consequences, which could include a fine or a jail term of up to seven years.

“This is really problematic,” said Nikhil Pahwa, editor of MediaNama, a technology policy website, and an internet activist. “I don’t see why the government of India should wade into this territory of trying to censor tweets when they have much bigger problems to deal with.”

When we point out situations like this, in which the government would abuse such power, we often have people say that we're being ridiculous and such power wouldn't be abused in the US (if it was somehow even deemed allowed under the 1st Amendment). But as that Atlantic article points out, India has freedom of expression in its Constitution as well.

And even if you believe in American exceptionalism (which you probably shouldn't) and that it would be okay if the law were changed in the US, but not elsewhere, just note that countries like India (and many others) would use such a law in the US as an excuse for why their own crackdowns on free expression are in accordance with US norms.

And, of course, this puts Twitter in a somewhat impossible spot. If it does what everyone knows is the right thing morally and ethically, and refuses to suspend these accounts, it faces a difficult future in the country. Its own employees may be thrown in jail and fined. India has already been not just blocking the internet, but many Chinese apps such as TikTok. I would not put it past the Mohdi government to declare a block on Twitter. Of course, if the company caves in and takes the content back down, then it raises significant moral questions about how it may be supporting the crackdown on free speech, a free press, and on protesters in India.

It is easy to argue that Twitter should continue to take this stand and do the morally right thing, but it's much easier to do it as a nobody typing words on a computer screen than as someone actually making the very real call which could have widespread consequences for many, many people.

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Filed Under: farm protests, free press, free speech, india, narendra mohdi
Companies: twitter


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  • icon
    Dan (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 9:52am

    If they really wanted someone's attention.

    If India really wanted someone's attention in this, they'd ask for extradition of Twitter's CEO, instead of scapegoating the rank and file employees.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 10:29am

      Re: If they really wanted someone's attention.

      " ask for extradition of Twitter's CEO,"

      On what charges, from what country, and who has standing in which country on what charges?

      I think there is a formal process they like to follow rather than allowing anyone to make up stuff.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 10:41am

        Re: Re: If they really wanted someone's attention.

        The decision to restore accounts is probably taken at the board level. India is threatening local staff as a means to pressurize the board.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2021 @ 1:32pm

        Re: Re: If they really wanted someone's attention.

        They are already making stuff up.

        Of course, that is no new modus for Modi and the BJP.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2021 @ 4:15pm

        Re: Re: If they really wanted someone's attention.

        The article is full of disinfo:
        Only fat cat middlemen and landlord farmers from the indian state of punjab are protesting (and they are funded to the tune of millions of dollars with free food, logistics, etc)
        The new laws free indian farmers to sell their produce to the entire indian market; the previous laws forced them to go local market boards to where they are shaken down by connected crony middlemen. Farmers from other states are not protesting because these laws are intended to cut the middlemen out and see the farmers receive more revenue for their produce. The middlemen skim off 2/3 of the revenue leaving small farmers with only 30-40% of their due. Wealthy farmers ARE middlemen and don't work the land themselves but hire indigent labour at slave wages.
        The twitter accounts in question were inciting violence by spreading a lie that the government was about to commit genocide against the blockading farmers
        The Modi government has a much greater presence on twitter than the entire opposition combined: so right now theyre looking pretty stupid making a threat and then due publicity greed, not following through.
        Since Twitter is clearly in violation of Indian IT law, the government should have the backbone to throw twitter out of India entirely, like they did to Tik Tok.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    Koby (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 11:41am

    Exceptionalism

    And even if you believe in American exceptionalism (which you probably shouldn't) and that it would be okay if the law were changed in the US, but not elsewhere, just note that countries like India (and many others) would use such a law in the US as an excuse for why their own crackdowns on free expression are in accordance with US norms.

    You misunderstand American Exceptionalism as simply that the United States is a better nation than others

    Throughout human history, government was designed as a way by which the wealthy and powerful maintained their standing. Kings, dictators, generals, and emporers made their decisions on the basis of whatever it was that benefitted themselves. This pattern continued for millennia, with very few exceptions.

    Then, came the United States of America, which upended the model of government. Instead of the government operating for the benefit of the elite, the government operated for the benefit of the ordinary people. This model was so successful, so prosperous and free, that people from around the world demanded that it be copied in their country. The American model of government was the exception to thousands of years of rule from around the globe, and it proved to be a lot better than the rest.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 11:50am

      You misunderstand American Exceptionalism as simply that the United States is a better nation than others[.]

      Your entire screed after this is “the United States is a better nation than others”, so maybe go back to the drawing board with that argument.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2021 @ 4:10am

      Re: Exceptionalism

      " This pattern continued for millennia, with very few exceptions."

      There are no exceptions to human greed.

      "Then, came the United States of America, which upended the model of government. Instead of the government operating for the benefit of the elite, the government operated for the benefit of the ordinary people."

      This is the story ..... but as we all know there are liars and then there are politicians.
      Real life experience says this story is bullshit. If ordinary people were to benefit then why are most ordinary people are struggling to put food on tables they do not have?

      The American model of government is to lie out yer ass while doing whatever you want.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 11:50am

    when are people going to realise what's happening, not just in India but in so many other supposed Democratic, 'free' countries? speech is only free and only protected provided the various governments deem it so! we have enough of it going on in the USA, in the UK and in the EU. as soon as the government doesn't like something, it's removed and/or prevented from being distributed. even worse, certainly in the USA, almost every security service wants to stifle everything that shows what it and it's officers have done/are doing but want to be able to view everything said, written or looked at by ordinary people! this shows how worried the security services are of what they are doing being found out and broadcast worldwide! because of the 'wrong doings' of these services and the governments in charge, the safest and most citizen friendly countries are fast becomming dictatorial with freedom and free speech being removed faster and faster. soon, the planet will be just how the '12' want it, ie, nothing short of a slave planet where everyone have no rights and are working just to keep the head honchos in the laps of luxury!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bergman (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 11:55am

    The solution is simple

    Twitter suspends the moderation credentials of any employee who is under threat of illegal retaliation. A suspended employee who cannot login cannot obey the government, and therefore cannot be prosecuted for not obeying.

    Eventually there will be no Twitter employees capable of obeying in India, and the only people for the government to go after will be those in other countries, where India has no jurisdiction.

    And India won't be able to extradite, because they'd have to cite a lawful reason, such as violating a law - refusing to obey an illegal order is not against the law.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2021 @ 7:22am

      Re: The solution is simple

      What would stop the Indian government from prosecuting those employees anyway, under the "f*ck you, we're the government" theory of criminality? I mean, they're already threatening freedom of speech, why not go further?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2021 @ 1:36pm

        Re: Re: The solution is simple

        The same thing that stops them from murdering groups of people and then pretending it didn't happen? Oh, wait...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2021 @ 4:50pm

      Re: The solution is simple

      Because you drank the koolaid that this article is accurate, which it is NOT (they couldnt even spell Prime Minister Modi's name right - gimme a break- it's MODI not MoHdi.). The offending accounts were inciting panic and inflaming a riot.They were spreading the lie that the indian government was about implement genocide against the farmers. Earlier, these so called farmers attacked police with swords (real ones) and steel rods in addition to trying run them over with tractors. The HD videos of this are on Youtube, they are not a secret. The farmer rioters entered federal property, the Red Fort (a heritage site), trashed it (like the capitol hill rioters), put-up their own ethno-religous flag (like some capitol hill rioters put up the confederate flag) on India's Republic Day.
      A non-citizen rioter, from australia got killed because he flipped his tractor over while driving a tractor over police barricades (its on video), he was crushed under tractor which was now upside down. several of the twitter accounts the government had shutdown promoted the lie that this rioter was shot by police - he clearly was not (the intent was to inflame the rioters further). This was admitted by some of the most vociferous anti-government news channels who even fired their own news anchor for propagating this lie (which he later admitted with the video of the rioter flipping his tractor surfaced).
      Not a single "farmer" rioter was shot, even though the police had guns, they had orders to not use them to control the riot (only personal protection).
      Hundreds of police women were savagely beaten by armed male rioters; many policemen are in hospital, no rioters are in hospital.
      Before you accuse me of being a supporter of the government, I'm not, I'm disgusted by them; because they wanted to create a national backlash against these fake farmer rioters and they succeeded, spectacularly, but using manipulative methods and turning low-paid policemen into punching bags.
      You see, the ignorant opinions of foreigners don't matter in India, it's opinion of the Indian public that matters, and the Modi government is winning that hands down (using, in my opinion, wrongful means, such as allowing the rioters to use swords and steel rods in order destroy any public sympathy towards them, rather that enforcing the law which would affect their election ambitions in upcoming state elections).

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Feb 2021 @ 12:21pm

    Two quotes seem relevant:

    "I Am Altering The Deal. Pray I Don’t Alter It Any Further." - D Vader

    Once you have paid him the Dane-geld, you are never free of the Dane. -- R Kipling

    When you talk about a government, it has the power to make up laws as it goes along. Threatening civil charges is one thing. Threatening criminal charges ups the ante. It is hard to imagine them walking that one back. But unless they do, it isn't just Twitter that it affects, it is the entire business culture.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Draph91 (profile), 4 Feb 2021 @ 4:57pm

    So....

    Does the Indian government mean Twitter employees who live in India

    I mean you have to admit that is kinda vague

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Feb 2021 @ 2:58am

    Meanwhile

    Gootube demonitises independent commentary voice channels (Elwood, Convo, Fisher, etc.). And they take down the John Farina/Status Coup capture of some of the break in to the Capitol whilst leaving its licensed usage by all of the main stream media up. Go figure.

    All is fair in Love and War and Content Moderation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Tanner Andrews (profile), 8 Feb 2021 @ 3:00am

    This New "Internet" Thing

    You know, with this new "internet" thing out there, it might be possible for a web service such as Twitter to have users in India without even having an office there. The users would just use this "internet" thing to access the service, which may operate on a server farm far away.

    True, it might be harder for India to collect taxes from Twitter, but I cannot see that as a particular problem for Twitter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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