Twitter feels the heat as India tightens grip on social platforms

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.

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