Twitter picked a high-stakes fight with the government of India on Tuesday, setting the stage for a showdown that will test the company’s commitment to free speech.
After more than a year of squabbling with Indian lawmakers over strict new censorship laws in the Asian nation, Twitter has taken the dispute to court and is suing the government over “arbitrary” and “disproportionate” orders requiring the company to remove content and block accounts, The Washington Post reported. Though Twitter didn’t specify which orders it was challenging, the ruling Indian government has sought in recent months to squelch dissenting voices criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist leadership.
What could this mean for Twitter in the days ahead?
Having faced pressure from Indian government officials over its reluctance to comply with the new laws, this is a high-risk move that could thrust the company into deeper conflict with New Delhi. The company has pushed back most requests, reporting that it complied with only 12% of legal demands to remove or hide content in India in the first half of 2021, far below its global compliance rate of 54%. The company hasn’t commented on how it’s able to fend for so many of them.
Has the government reacted to the latest move?
Oh yes! They have, and you may guess what the reaction is. Kanchan Gupta, a senior adviser in India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, hit back at Twitter on Tuesday, tweeting: “Sovereign laws of India are supreme, not @Twitter wokery. India’s rules will decide what Twitter can and can’t, not an intermediary’s mumbo-jumbo. Compliance is must.” With Tuesday’s lawsuit, Twitter is taking the fight into the open. Wait, before lionizing Twitter too much, it’s worth noting that the lawsuit doesn’t seek to overturn India’s strict censorship laws.
Twitter argues that Indian officials “interpreted those laws too broadly,” the Times reported. Government officials have used high-profile intimidation tactics against Twitter’s leaders in the country, at one point visiting the company’s offices after it labeled a political official’s tweet as “manipulated media.” If Twitter loses this battle, however, the defeat would put the company in a precarious position. A victory for Modi would likely further embolden his administration’s crackdown on political opponents and press freedom, potentially making Twitter an accomplice to this effort.
In that case, Twitter must decide whether the financial gains of operating in India are worth the reputational damage.
Twitter’s most recent transparency report showed that Indian authorities issued 89 legal demands to censor verified journalists and news organizations in the first half of 2021, the highest total in the world. Turkey, Russia, and Pakistan combined for 117 orders, while the U.S. made zero.