India on Wednesday reprimanded Twitter for not complying with its orders to take down certain tweets and warned the social media platform that it “must respect” local laws “irrespective of Twitter’s own rules and guidelines”.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, via a statement on rival platform Koo, said that its secretary had on a call with some of Twitter’s top executives expressed “strong displeasure” with Twitter’s actions. The same release was later posted on Twitter.

“Twitter is free to formulate its own rules and guidelines,” the government said. “But Indian laws which are enacted by the Parliament of India must be followed irrespective of Twitter’s own rules and guidelines.”

The microblogging website found itself at the centre of a political firestorm after Twitter refused to fully comply with Narendra Modi’s government order to remove more than 1,100 accounts and posts that are allegedly spreading misinformation about the farmer protests against the new agricultural laws. Twitter said these demands of the government were inconsistent with the Indian law.

It refused to outright ban certain handles, but imposed restrictions on some of them within India. Notably, none of the suspended accounts belonged to journalists, news organisations, activists and politicians, as doing so “would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law”, the company said.

Twitter’s actions have irked the government, with several Bharatiya Janata Party leaders accusing the microblogging website of showing high handedness. Many politicians and users are also joining the home-grown Twitter-like social media platform Koo, in a snub to the company.

The IT secretary late on Wednesday expressed his deep disappointment at the manner in which the company had “unwillingly, grudgingly and with great delay” complied with only parts of the government’s orders.

“We value freedom and we value criticism because it is part of our democracy,” the ministry said.
“But freedom of expression is not absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions as mentioned in Article 19 (2) of the Constitution of India.”

The secretary said that spreading misinformation using an “incendiary and baseless hashtag” referring to “farmer genocide” at a time when such irresponsible content “can provoke and inflame the situation” is neither journalistic freedom nor freedom of expression as envisaged under Article 19 of the Constitution of India.

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But despite the attention of Twitter being drawn to such content by the government, the platform allowed the content with this hashtag to continue, which was “extremely unfortunate”, the IT ministry official said.

Citing Twitter’s crackdown on accounts after the violence in January at Washington’s Capitol Hill, the government claimed that the “differential treatment” it provided to India and the United States was “deeply disappointing”.

The IT secretary said he reminded the social media platform about the action taken by it during the Capitol Hill episode and compared that with the disturbance in Red Fort in India on January 26 “and its aftermath”. He said he told the company’s executives that Twitter was not siding with freedom of expression but “rather with those who seek to abuse such freedom and provoke disturbance to public order”.

The protest ‘tool kit’

During the virtual meeting with Twitter executives, the government also mentioned the “revelations” around a toolkit on the farmer protests that was shared by teenaged climate activist Greta Thunberg in her messages expressing support for the agitation.

The IT secretary claimed the said toolkit had “made it evident” that a strong social media campaign was planned in a foreign country around the farmers’ protest.

“The misuse of Twitter’s platform for execution of such campaigns designed to create disharmony and unrest in India is unacceptable and Twitter must take strong action against such well-coordinated campaigns against India, through compliance with the applicable law of the land,” the government official added.

The government accused Twitter of officially allowing fake, unverified, anonymous and automated bot accounts to be operated on its platform, which raise “doubts about its commitment to transparency and healthy conversation on this platform”.

The press release said that the Twitter leadership affirmed their commitment towards following Indian laws and rules. There was no immediate response from Twitter.