Twitter is challenging India’s government in court for the first time over its orders to block tweets and accounts, saying some were excessive and outside the scope of officials’ legal authority.
The legal fightback is a potential test case in the struggle between social media platforms and prime minister Narendra Modi’s government, which last year obtained greater powers to force technology companies to suppress content.
Two people briefed on Twitter’s case said the San Francisco-headquartered company decided to challenge the Indian government’s blocking orders after officials threatened to open criminal proceedings against its New Delhi-based compliance officer.
The government had also warned it could strip Twitter of the immunity it enjoys in its status of being a platform, rather than a publisher, if it failed to follow instructions to hide posts, the people said.
They said that in a petition filed at the Karnataka high court on Tuesday afternoon, Twitter argued the blocking orders were disproportionate and excessive.
A 2021 amendment to India’s Information Technology Act requires social media companies to appoint a compliance officer, who can be “punished with an imprisonment” of up to seven years, as well as a fine, if the company fails to comply with a government blocking order.
“Those amendments introduced personal liability for employees within the country,” said Prateek Waghre, policy director at Internet Freedom Foundation, an Indian digital liberties organisation. “So there is certainly that extra factor that will now be at play as companies that receive these requests think about how to respond to them.”
The 2021 legislation provides for the government to block content in the interest of India’s sovereignty, defence and security, foreign relations, public order, or “for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence”.
Twitter and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which is responsible for social media, declined to comment.
Free speech activists have in recent weeks criticised Twitter over what they say is its lack of commitment to free speech, after the company blocked a flurry of tweets and accounts in India at the government’s direction.
The social media company blocks tweets by making their content invisible to users in India, who instead see a notice informing them of the block.
Twitter has at times resisted the government. New Delhi ordered the platform to block a number of influential accounts, during farmers’ protests against new agricultural laws in February 2021. After initially complying, the company reinstated many journalists and activists.
The people briefed on Twitter’s petition said the company had been ordered to block tweets that did not meet the legal criteria for suppression. The tweets included political, critical or newsworthy content, they said, but declined to give further details for legal reasons.
They said Twitter was seeking a judicial review which could overturn the blocking orders and give clarity on the government’s rationale for them.
Free speech advocates say Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is stepping up pressure on popular social media platforms. Indian journalist Mohammed Zubair appeared before a magistrate last week after being arrested over a tweet from 2018 that an anonymous Twitter user alleged was hurtful to religious sentiment.