The social media company Twitter has mounted a legal challenge against orders by the Indian government to take down content.
The lawsuit turns the spotlight on what critics say is a bid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to clamp down on critical online content under strict information technology laws passed last year that gives authorities powers to demand that companies block public access to posts or accounts.
Twitter has not commented on the lawsuit, but media outlets in India reported that the company has asked for a judicial review of the takedown orders saying that they were either “overbroad and arbitrary” or “disproportionate.” The case was filed in the Karnataka high court in Bengaluru on Tuesday.
After the lawsuit was reported, the junior minister for information technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar tweeted, that while “intermediaries” have the right to seek judicial review, they also have an obligation to follow the country’s rules.
The lawsuit is the first legal challenge by the social media giant to push back against the rules passed last year under which the government can order the removal of social media posts or videos that are hateful, deceptive, libelous or threaten the security of the state among various other grounds.
“The lawsuit by Twitter is significant because it has the potential to set important precedents for freedom of expression in India, particularly online freedom,” said Prateek Waghre, policy director with the Internet Freedom Foundation in New Delhi.
Citing the Lumen database, an American site that analyzes legal complaints and removal requests, he points out that a number of posts and accounts blocked over the past year were that of politicians, activists and journalists.
“There has been an increasing compliance burden on a lot of companies with the new IT (Information Technology) rules, so it was a matter of time before one of them took a more adversarial position,” Waghre told VOA.
Among the content that the social media giant was asked to remove over the last year were tweets relating to a massive protest by farmers and those critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic during a deadly second wave in the summer of 2021.
The new rules also make executives of internet companies liable to face criminal penalties if they do not comply with demands to take down posts or accounts.
The regulations have raised questions on internet freedom in India, where social media companies now have millions of users — Twitter is estimated to have more than 24 million users in the country.
The government defends the regulations saying they are necessary to combat online misinformation and says that social media companies must be accountable. But critics have voiced concern about its growing intolerance of dissenting voices, whether online or otherwise.
According to a transparency report filed by Twitter from January to June 2021, India was among the top five countries that had demanded the removal of content — the others were Japan, Russia, Turkey and South Korea.
Internet freedom in India weakened for a fourth straight year, according to a 2021 country report on freedom on the net by Freedom House, a Washington-based research organization. It said India’s new law had imposed broad obligations on large social media companies to further moderate online content, undermine end-to-end encryption, and increased retention of personal data.
Twitter has had several brushes with the Indian government. In May, last year, the social media giant had expressed concern over freedom of expression in India days after police visited its offices in New Delhi and served a notice to the site after it labeled a tweet by the Bharatiya Janata Party, one of two major political parties in the country, as “manipulated media.” And in June last year, police in Uttar Pradesh state summoned the company’s top executive in India for failing to take down a viral video of alleged communal violence.