Twitter blocked 122 accounts belonging to journalists, authors, and politicians in India this week in response to legal requests from the Indian government. On March 23, the government issued a request for 29 more Twitter accounts to be blocked, as per data on the Lumen database — a collaborative archive which collects legal complaints and requests for removal of online material. The development follows a police crackdown and a subsequent internet shutdown in the north Indian state of Punjab to arrest separatist figure Amritpal Singh Sandhu. The government has declared Sandhu a fugitive and he is on the run. The current internet and SMS suspension in the state, enforced on March 18, affects 27 million people.
The blocked Twitter accounts include those belonging to journalists Pieter Friedrich, Sandeep Singh, Kamaldeep Singh Brar, and Gagandeep Singh; Canadian politician Jagmeet Singh and poet Rupi Kaur; and pro-Khalistan member of parliament Simranjit Singh Mann. A number of these accounts, which include prominent Sikh voices in the diaspora, were putting out credible information amid the current turmoil in Punjab.
The blocked accounts are currently inaccessible in India, and appear as mostly blank pages with a disclaimer reading “[Username]’s account has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand.” According to Twitter’s policy guidelines, such messaging indicates that “Twitter was compelled to withhold the account specified in response to a valid legal demand, such as a court order.”
“[Twitter CEO Elon] Musk has been quite categorical [in talking about] ‘free speech’ but laws of the land apply, [and] there is a clear contradiction in the statement,” Prateek Waghre, policy director at digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, told Rest of World.
Twitter is the only social media platform to have ever pushed back against similar demands in the past, Waghre noted. “Earlier, it does seem that Twitter did at least push back against some requests [for accounts to be taken down],” he said, adding that there’s no clarity on how many such requests Twitter complied with versus the number it rejected. In June 2022, four months before Musk’s takeover of the company, Twitter had initiated legal action against the Indian government over a series of orders to block content on the platform.
One of the journalists whose account remains inaccessible in India told Rest of World they never received a notification from Twitter informing them of the impending block. “If I tweeted anything that was fake or rumor or hate speech, then the proper case should be registered against me,” they said, requesting anonymity as they didn’t want to publicly comment on an ongoing issue. “Otherwise, the account should be restored with an apology from the government.” All of the journalist’s tweets prior to the block, shared with Rest of World, were news articles or posts on the developments in Punjab.
An independent journalist, requesting anonymity for similar reasons, told Rest of World they received an email from Twitter hours after their account was withheld. The email, viewed by Rest of World, states that Twitter received “a legal removal demand from the Government of India,” and claimed their account “violates India’s Information Technology Act, 2000.” The email further states, “Indian law obligates Twitter to withhold access to this content in India; however, the content remains available elsewhere.”
While blocking accounts in a region isn’t a first for Twitter, the social network would previously issue notices to affected parties. In June 2022, Mohammed Zubair, the founder of Indian fact-checking site Alt News, received an email from Twitter after one of his tweets was flagged by the Delhi Police for violating the Information Technology Act, 2000. However, not only was this tweet not taken down, Twitter’s email read that it “strongly believes in defending and respecting the voice of our users.”
“Some accounts were withheld mid-last year, and reports suggested that Twitter was complying with pending orders … because they were issued with an ultimatum that if they don’t comply with the orders, their chief compliance officer in the country [was liable] for prosecution,” Waghre said.
Twitter’s guidelines indicate that it attempts to notify affected users via their registered email address or through a notification in the app, unless it has been “prohibited” from doing so. The process to overturn a block requires users to respond to Twitter’s email notification — especially in case of a legal demand, such as the one made by the Indian government. But most of the accounts blocked this week never received an email.
Rest of World reached out to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and the government’s Department of Legal Affairs for comment, but has yet to receive a response. This story will be updated with responses as and when Rest of World hears from them.
This article was originally published by Rest of World, a nonprofit newsroom covering the effect of technology outside the West. The article can be read here.