India Threatens Twitter With Penalties If It Doesn’t Block Accounts

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India Threatens Twitter With Penalties If It Doesn’t Block Accounts

NEW DELHI—India threatened to punish Twitter if it doesn’t comply with a government request to restore a block on accounts connected to tweets about farmers’ protests that the government says are inflammatory.

On Monday Twitter blocked more than 250 accounts from being seen within India following a government request after Indian officials said the tweets could incite violence. The officials singled out the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmersGenocide, which some Twitter users have been using to bring attention to the government’s crackdown on protesters.

The demonstrations have been going on for more than two months as farmers protest new laws as the first step in removing the government support they rely upon. New Delhi says the laws will help farmers and consumers by modernizing and streamlining the agricultural supply chain.

The blocking of the accounts on Monday, which included some respected news organizations and political activists, triggered an outcry on Twitter.

Twitter reversed the ban within 12 hours, saying the tweets in question should be allowed as part of free speech. The company said protecting public conversation and transparency was fundamental to its work.

Security officers on Wednesday pushed back demonstrators who were showing their support for the protesting farmers in New Delhi.

Photo: Manish Swarup/Associated Press

When it explained the thinking behind the original ban on Monday, Twitter said it had received a formal request from an authorized entity in India, adding that it was sometimes necessary to withhold access to certain content in some countries.

After Twitter’s reversal, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology demanded the company comply with its request because subjects like genocide cannot be protected and pose a threat to law and order, said a government official.

“Twitter seems to be following a dual standard in India,” said the official, who was involved with India’s request to block the accounts. “Will it promote a genocide hashtag in Europe or the U.S.?”

In a notice to Twitter on Tuesday, the Ministry said the company has no constitutional, statutory or legal basis to comment upon the interplay of statutory provisions as per its own limited private understanding of laws in India.

Twitter declined to comment on the latest development in India Wednesday.

If the company doesn’t comply, New Delhi has threatened to take action under its information technology laws, which could include a fine and up to seven years of jail time for the Twitter executives in charge of implementing government directives.

New Delhi and others who have taken the government’s side in the showdown with farmers have been trying to use internet restrictions and outrage about tweets to push back on the protests.

Police officers stood guard in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg News

Indian authorities temporarily shut internet services near the protests in and around the national capital this week. The police in different states are investigating complaints that some well-known journalists had broken the law by spreading false information when they tweeted reports a farmer had been shot by police when the protests turned violent last week.

“The government seems to have a plan on making it difficult for journalists to work objectively,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of a The Wire, a well-known news website.

Police in the state of Uttar Pradesh are investigating a complaint against Mr. Varadarajan for tweeting a story on the claims made by the family of the farmer who was killed during a rally.

Delhi police say the protesting farmer wasn’t shot and that the autopsy report said he died of head injuries caused when his tractor overturned during the protest rally.

The Indian farmers’ protest gained even more social media attention this week as both pop star Rihanna and environmental activist Greta Thunberg tweeted about it.

U.S. tech giants such as Facebook Inc. and its WhatsApp messaging service, Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Amazon.com Inc. have in recent years invested billions of dollars and released new features for Indian users as they aim to capture the world’s biggest untapped tech market.

Farmers protested during a tractor rally near a border crossing in Delhi last month.

Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg News

With many American firms shut out of China, they are attracted to India’s nascent internet economy, where internet access is booming and hundreds of millions of new consumers are getting online for the first time on inexpensive smartphones.

But seeking to match China’s success at fostering the growth of its homegrown tech industry, India’s government has been erecting regulatory roadblocks in sectors such as e-commerce and digital payments. And last year, amid political tensions between India and China, New Delhi banned dozens of Chinese mobile apps, including Bytedance Ltd. widely used TikTok.

Facebook Inc. found itself at the center of a political storm last year after The Wall Street Journal reported that the company’s top public-policy executive in India opposed efforts to apply hate-speech rules to some Hindu nationalist politicians and groups.

The executive, whose job also includes lobbying India’s government on Facebook’s behalf, told staff members that punishing violations by politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country, Facebook’s biggest global market by number of users, the current and former employees said. The executive later stepped down from her job at the company.

In late January, Indian farmers clashed with police in what marked a violent escalation in a monthslong protest movement over the government’s new farming laws. Photo: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters (Originally published Jan. 26, 2021)

Write to Rajesh Roy at rajesh.roy@wsj.com and Newley Purnell at newley.purnell@wsj.com

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