In India, Facebook and Twitter walk censorship tightrope with government

Farmers in the Indian state of Haryana listen to a speaker during a protest in April against new farm laws. As a result of massive protests by farmers across the country in recent months, the Indian government passed measures giving it more power over social media. (Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto/Zuma Press)
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Dean DeChiaro CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

When Facebook and Twitter sought to limit the extent to which their platforms could be used to spread disinformation related to last year’s presidential election, Amal Chandra, a 22-year-old university student in Kerala, India, applauded their efforts.

Now, Chandra, who studies political science at Pondicherry University, is wondering why the same companies are complying with demands by the Indian government to remove social media posts critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During the U.S. presidential election, we saw a fair, neutral, objective position from the side of social media,” Chandra said in an interview. “So why can’t they do the same in India?”

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In recent days, the social media giants removed about 100 posts in India following an emergency order by Modi’s government at a time when the prime minister, previously criticized for downplaying the severity of the pandemic, is faced with a surge of hundreds of thousands of positive coronavirus cases to which the government has been slow to respond.

Then, last Thursday, Facebook temporarily hid posts containing the hashtag #ResignModi. The company said it had done so by “mistake” and “not because the Indian government asked us to,” and said the posts were restored to the platform.

The government said the originally removed posts threatened public safety, undermined the government’s efforts to fight the pandemic, or sought to spread misleading information. Individuals who have used social media to seek medical help and supplies have also been persecuted, according to reports.

But those critical of Modi, who leads the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, say the order was designed to silence free speech and political dissent. Chandra, who describes himself as a center-left liberal, was disappointed when the companies complied with the order.

“In every country, they should be respectful of democracy and dissent and they should not succumb to the anti-democratic directions of the government,” he said. “We have a constitution which guarantees the right to free expression and reasonable criticism, so why should Twitter or Facebook succumb to the government’s pressure?”

[Social media algorithms threaten democracy, experts tell senators]

Beyond its explanation for the temporary removal of #ResignModi posts, Facebook declined to comment on the removal of posts at the government’s behest. In a statement, a spokesperson for Twitter said the removals from its platform were in accordance with Indian law.

“When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s rules, the content will be removed from the service,” the spokesperson said. “If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only.”

Some advocates have slammed the companies for complying with the order, citing Facebook’s partnership with the Global Network Initiative, a coalition that seeks to limit online censorship by autocratic governments, and Twitter’s stated mission to “serve the public conversation.”

“Facebook, Twitter, and other technology companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, including right to free speech,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in an email interview. “Online censorship can have a debilitating effect on dissent. It is important for companies to protect the human rights of their users and not censor information in violation of international standards.”

Despite the Indian government’s order, the companies “should interpret and implement legal demands as narrowly as possible, to ensure the least possible restriction on expression, notify users, seek clarification or modification from authorities, and explore all legal options for challenge,” Ganguly said.

But the choice by social media companies facing government demands isn’t only a moral one but a business decision, too. Indiahas more than 755 million internet users — second in the world only to China — making it an attractive market for U.S. companies. Modi’s use of the country’s digital regulation laws places the companies in an unenviable position.

“Even if you don’t agree, you will have to comply if you want to operate in India,” said Rohin Garg, associate policy counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, a New Delhi-based nonprofit organization. “Facebook is a large company. If they have to optimize between revenue and free speech, we know which way it’s going to go.”

Garg said that in theory, it is a good thing that international companies are subject to the laws in each jurisdiction where they operate.

“But because the government is able to bend the rules without including accountability or transparency measures in their legislation, they can take advantage of that and do what they want,” he said.

India’s current digital regulations, established in 2000, were amended by the Modi administration earlier this year amid massive protests by farmers. The regulations gave the government more power over large online companies, including the authority to demand the removal of content threatening to “the sovereignty and integrity of India.”

Around the same time, the government threatened to imprison India-based Twitter employees if the company did not block accounts related to the protests; Twitter did so, but left intact accounts belonging to officials, journalists and activists.

Critics of the regulations say they could deepen India’s democratic backsliding under Modi.

Garg says the ideal solution would include greater accountability and transparency for both the government and social media companies.

“So the private sector can’t do what it wants willy-nilly, and the government can’t do what it wants willy-nilly, which would sort of mutually enforce an equilibrium of, at least, relative integrity,” Garg said. “Right now we have neither in India.”

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