The Centre has directed Twitter to block nearly 1,200 accounts with suspected links to Khalistan sympathisers or Pakistan, The Hindu reported on Monday. The government said these accounts were causing a threat to public order amid the farmers’ protest against agricultural laws.
An unidentified official told the newspaper that many of these accounts were automated bots which were being used to share and amplify misinformation about protests.
“The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has shared a list of 1,178 Twitter accounts that were flagged by security agencies as accounts of Khalistan sympathisers or backed by Pakistan and operating from foreign territories and causing threat to public order in view of the ongoing farmers’ protests in some parts of India,” the official said.
The official added that a list of these accounts was shared with Twitter on February 4, but the company has not taken action yet.
The government said that Twitter could challenge its order in the court and get a stay. “But until then they are bound by the laws of the country and will have to block these accounts as per the notice,” an an official told The Indian Express.
The Centre said it has also taken note of Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey liking tweets by foreign celebrities in support of the farmers’ protest, according to The Hindu. The government said this raised questions about the microblogging platform’s neutrality.
The Centre, in its notice, also allegedly threatened the people working at Twitter India with legal consequences, which can include a fine or imprisonment up to seven years, reported BuzzFeed.
The government also pushed back against Twitter’s “free speech” argument, saying that it had no “constitutional, statutory or any legal basis whatsoever” to interpret what constituted as free speech under the Indian laws.
A Twitter spokesperson told The Hindu that the company reviews legal requests about potentially illegal content under its rules and local law. “If the content violates Twitter’s rules, the content will be removed from the service,” the spokesperson added. “If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction but not in violation of the Twitter rules, we may withhold access to the content in the location only.”
The spokesperson added that in such cases, they notify the account holder directly. “Our goal is to respect local law while protecting our foundational principles of free expression,” the spokesperson said.
In a statement sent to the Hindustan Times on Monday, a Twitter spokesperson said that the company has asked for a meeting with Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. “We have reached out to the honourable minister for a formal dialogue,” the spokesperson said. “An acknowledgement to the receipt of the non-compliance notice has also been formally communicated.”
The spokesperson said Twitter reviews every report from the government as quickly as possible and takes appropriate action, while ensuring that the company’s fundamental values and commitment to protecting the public conversation. “We strongly believe that the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact, and that the tweets must continue to flow,” the statement said.
Last week, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had sent a notice to Twitter for restoring about 250 accounts and tweets which used the “ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide” hashtag. The government warned Twitter that it could face action for unilaterally unblocking the accounts and for not following its directives to withhold them.
The Twitter handles of Caravan magazine and Kisan Ekta Morcha were among those withheld. The accounts of farmers’ group Bharatiya Kisan Union Ekta Ugrahan was also blocked.
There has been a clampdown on the farmers’ protest in the aftermath of the violence during the Republic Day tractor rally. Protest sites near Delhi have been heavily barricaded, with nails dug into the roads. More than 100 people have been arrested in connection with the violence and several are reportedly missing.