NEW DELHI - India has warned social media giants to comply with local laws or face action amid an escalating dispute with Twitter over the government’s demand that hundreds of accounts be blocked.
Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told parliament Thursday that “if social media is misused to spread fake news and misinformation, then action will be taken."
Naming Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and LinkedIn, he said that they were free to do business in India but would have to “follow the Indian constitution."
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called on Twitter to take down hundreds of accounts and posts for allegedly using provocative hashtags and spreading misinformation about a massive farmers’ protest that erupted in violence on January 26.
India has reacted angrily to Twitter’s failure to comply fully with its directive -- while the social media company has acted on some of these accounts, it has not taken down all of them.
Following a virtual call with Twitter’s executives, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said that it had “expressed deep disappointment” over the manner in which the company had “unwillingly, grudgingly and with great delay” complied with only parts of its orders. “Lawfully passed orders are binding on any business entity and must be obeyed immediately,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.
Twitter had earlier said, “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.”
India also called out Twitter for “differential treatment,” citing its crackdown on accounts following last month’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.
“During Capitol Hill, social media platforms stand with the police action and in violence at Red Fort, you take a different stand,” Minister Prasad said in parliament, referring to the storming of a historic building in New Delhi by thousands of farmers during a rally. “We won't allow these double standards.”
Critics have voiced concern about the government’s intolerance of dissenting voices and accuse it of cracking down on free speech.
Digital rights activists say there is no way to ascertain whether the government’s request to act against hundreds of accounts is legal because the orders “lack transparency.”
“Apart from Twitter which has seen these orders, no one can comment on whether these orders are justified,” according to Nikhil Pahwa, founder of MediaNama, a mobile and digital news portal. "But on the face of it some of these demands appear to be a disproportionate act of censorship,” he said.
Pahwa cites the example of a news magazine, The Caravan, whose account was restored after being briefly blocked. "The Caravan is an award-winning, legitimate news organization and was not even given an opportunity of a hearing.”
Pahwa welcomed Twitter’s move to not take down all the accounts as the government demanded. “I wish more platforms stood up for their users' speech like this and push back against orders that are in their opinion not lawful,” he said.