Twitter and the Indian government remain at loggerheads, after the microblogging platform filed a court challenge to a government order to remove certain content.

On Tuesday, Twitter asked an Indian court for a judicial review of government orders to take down content, Reuters reported.

Twitter already has a tense relationship with the Indian government, after the country passed controversial  IT rules in May 2021.

Image credit: Presidential Secretariat of India

Local law

However digital activists are concerned the rules will allow the Indian government to curtail online free speech and privacy in the country.

India’s new rules (called Intermediary Guidelines) seek to regulated content on social media firms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter etc.

It makes these platforms more accountable to legal requests for the swift removal of posts and sharing details about the originators of messages.

Social media firms and tech giants also have to remove content within 36 hours after an administrative or legal order is issued, under the new rules.

And to make matters worse, their staff can be held criminally liable for failing to comply with the government’s requests. This means that Twitter staff in India could face prison if they fail to comply with government requests.

The rules also require big social media companies to set up grievance mechanisms for law enforcement complaints, and appoint new executives to co-ordinate with law enforcement.

Twitter had expressed concern about what it called “the potential threat to freedom of expression” when the new rules came into effect.

And it was not alone.

In May 2021 WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against the Indian Government, arguing that the new rules that require it to make messages “traceable” to external parties are unconstitutional and undermine the fundamental right to privacy.

India clash

And Twitter has previously warned it is concerned for the safety of its staff in India, after its clash with the Indian government exploded in 2021, over takedown requests on content including accounts supportive of an independent Sikh state, posts alleged to have spread misinformation about protests by farmers, and over tweets critical of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But matters got really serious in February 2021, when Twitter refused an official request to remove over a thousand accounts from its platform.

But in April Twitter did remove a number of tweets critical of the Indian government’s response to a new wave of Coronavirus infections that engulfed the country, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

In May 2021 Indian police visited Twitter’s office in New Delhi, over its labelling of a tweet by a governing party spokesman as “manipulated media.”

Twitter hit back at the time and labelled the visit as a police ‘intimidation tactic’, and said it was now concerned for the safety of its staff in the country.

In June last year India’s technology minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad accused Twitter of deliberately not complying with the country’s new rules.

And in July 2021 Twitter was warned it was facing criminal charges in India after the platform published a map that incorrectly showed the turbulent Indian region of Kashmir as a separate country.

Days after that, the Indian government removed Twitter’s liability protection against user-generated content in India, because it alleged the platform had failed to comply with its new IT rules,

Judicial Review

Now Reuters has reported that Twitter is seeking a judicial review over the orders to remove certain content, with sources indicating the legal challenge alleges abuse of power by officials.

“Be it any company, in any sector, they should abide the laws of India,” India’s IT minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told Reuters partner ANI on Tuesday, in response to questions about Twitter’s legal challenge.

The IT ministry did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

Late last month, Twitter was reportedly warned by the IT ministry of criminal proceedings if it did not comply with some orders.

Twitter complied this week, the Reuters source said, so as not to lose liability exemptions available as a host of content.

In a filing with the top court in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Twitter argued that some removal orders fell short of the procedural requirements of India’s IT act, the source said, without specifying which ones it wanted reviewed.

Twitter has nearly 24 million users in India, and it also reportedly argues in its filing that some of the orders failed to give notice to authors of the content.

It says that some were related to political content posted by official handles of political parties, the blocking of which amount to violation of freedom of speech, the source added.

All companies, including foreign social media intermediaries, have a right to approach the courts, junior IT minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar said in a tweet hours after Twitter’s legal move, without naming the firm.

“But equally ALL intermediary/platforms operating here, have unambiguous obligation to comply with our laws and rules,” he said.

India, according to industry transparency reports, has among the highest government requests for content takedowns, Reuters reported.

And New Delhi is reportedly considering some amendments to its new IT rules, including the introduction of a government-run appeals panel with the power to reverse the content moderation decisions of social media firms.

New Delhi has said such measures were needed because the companies had violated Indians’ constitutional rights.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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