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Twitter feels the heat as India tightens grip on social platforms

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Chaudhary Sukhram Singh Yadav, a second-generation member of parliament for India’s opposition Samajwadi party, has a fairly limited online presence. His Twitter account, created last February, boasts fewer than 250 followers.

But the suspension of his account last week reflected the dilemma facing Twitter as it navigates a deepening stand-off with New Delhi.

Yadav’s was one of hundreds of accounts blocked by the platform at the request of the Indian government after he used a controversial hashtag in support of widespread farmers’ protests in the country.

However, Twitter has refused to comply with all the government’s requests to censor the accounts of protesters and those discussing their cause, in some cases citing the country’s own free speech laws — a stance that has inflamed relations with New Delhi.

The battle is likely to rage for months, experts said, particularly as the Indian government looks to tighten control over major social platforms.

“The trends are quite clear,” said Apar Gupta, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “There is definite movement towards creating barriers for large social media companies in India, which doesn’t only emerge from economic interests, but also a desire for greater political control.”

The stand-off could set a dangerous precedent for how other democratic governments handle online dissent, said Coby Goldberg, analyst for the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.

“Many other countries may be emboldened to present Twitter with the same ultimatum,” said Goldberg: “Enact content moderation based on national policies, or face the threat of losing market access.”

‘Always being watched’

The showdown with Indian authorities comes less than a year after New Delhi banned TikTok and over a hundred other Chinese apps in retaliation for the deaths of 21 Indian soldiers in a border dispute with Chinese troops.

Tensions between New Delhi and Twitter erupted last month, after long-running farmers’ protests against agricultural market reforms turned violent, with demonstrators and police clashing in the heart of the capital.

A 21-year-old environmental activist in India was arrested after allegedly using social media to support the farmers’ protests by sharing a campaign ‘toolkit’ promoted by Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg © Money Sharma/AFP/Getty

The Indian government subsequently ordered Twitter to block accounts that it accused of trying to “inflame the situation”. Twitter complied only partially, earning a stinging rebuke in which New Delhi expressed “deep disappointment” in the platform.

The impasse also comes as India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party clamps down on public criticism, using internet shutdowns and colonial-era laws to discourage dissent.

India’s home ministry plans to recruit “cyber crime volunteers” to report objectionable material across such broad legal categories as being “against sovereignty and integrity of India”.

“This is government-facilitated vigilantism by the looks of it,” said Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist. “You’re going to be afraid of always being watched.”

In this febrile climate, New Delhi’s scrutiny of social media content — and content-moderation policies — looks likely to intensify, alongside support for homegrown tech platforms.

“The situation for all social media companies — not only Twitter — will become more and more difficult,” said Gupta. “Large amounts of social commentary will be directed against them, voicing a nationalist sentiment for a more self-sufficient, self-reliant technological ecosystem in which companies in India, with Indian entrepreneurs, operate the platforms.”

For Twitter, a huge, fast-growing market of potential users is at stake. India’s internet-connected population is projected to grow from 600m last year to 850m by the end of 2022, according to Counterpoint Research.

Though the app has only been downloaded 90m times from the Indian Google Play and Apple App stores, according to Sensor Tower, compared with 1.4bn downloads of WhatsApp, it remains a critical forum for influencers, the media and business communities.

New Delhi has promoted homegrown Indian tech platforms to rival large global groups © Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty

Narendra Modi’s government is becoming increasingly reproachful towards online content. Indian authorities made 2,800 requests to Twitter to remove or withhold access to content in the first half of 2020, a 254 per cent increase on the second half of 2019 and the fifth-highest in the world, according to Twitter’s most recent transparency report.

The company complied with just under 14 per cent of those requests, compared with more than 36 per cent in the second half of 2019.

“Things are definitely taking a turn for the worse when it comes to internet freedom in India,” said Udbhav Tiwari, a public policy adviser at internet non-profit group Mozilla.

Beyond India

Twitter is banned in a number of countries including Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uganda and China.

In India, Gupta said it is “inevitable” that Twitter and other foreign digital media platforms will face more onerous regulations and a steady rise in demands to block content.

“It’s only a matter of time before regulations come out that make the operations tougher through greater amounts of government control,” he said. “There will be an increase in both takedown requests for user content and requests for user information.”

Similar battles are playing out elsewhere in Asia, as both democratic and authoritarian states seek more control of online content, pressing companies to violate their own free speech standards to continue operating there.

Facebook has censored content from Vietnamese and Thai dissidents at their governments’ behest, while Google has faced criticism for curbing free expression in Vietnam. Dia Kayyali, associate director for advocacy at digital human rights organisation Mnemonic, expected such pressures to mount.

“We are going to see — at a national and international level — a variety of ways to try to force platforms to take more responsibility, but also to try to force platforms to do what governments want them to do,” she said.

Indian authorities are also promoting indigenous Twitter rivals such as Koo, a fledgling microblogging app that operates in eight Indian languages and has been downloaded 3.3m times.

As authorities sparred publicly with Twitter, several Indian ministers and government departments promoted their accounts on Koo, helping drive a 215 per cent increase in downloads over the previous week, according to Sensor Tower data.

But Neil Shah, an analyst at Counterpoint, said creating a viable local competitor to a high-quality global app was rare. After an initial surge in users on Indian short-form video apps after TikTok was banned, he said, many users simply migrated to Instagram.

Among those betting on Koo was Mohandas Pai, a former top executive and board member at Indian IT giant Infosys and an investor in the emerging platform.

Pai said global social media giants have hurt their credibility by taking political sides in the US and elsewhere, and would face growing regulatory scrutiny in India as discomfort with their monopolistic powers increased.

“We are not China,” Pai told the Financial Times. “We will never build a great firewall to shut out everybody else. But all of these social media platforms will have to obey the law. On that, there will be no compromise.”

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