Despite rising censorship of Twitter posts and accounts on the basis of legal demands from the Indian government, law enforcement agencies and others over the last five years, the lack of transparency behind suspensions, blocked tweets and the practice of shadow-banning has left users angry.
Between June and December 2018 (the last period for which data is available), Indian government, law enforcement agencies and others made 657 legal demands for content removal, apart from 10 court orders. Overall 2,228 accounts were reported, of which 95 accounts and 114 tweets were withheld.
Indian demands for content removal were the fourth highest in the world for this period, and have increased 100-fold from the same period five years ago.
When contacted by The Hindu regarding such cases of censorship and the process followed to ensure transparency, a Twitter spokesperson refused to answer specific questions, saying, “We don’t comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons… At Twitter, no one is above our rules. We enforce our policies judiciously and impartially for all users — regardless of their political beliefs and background.”
Information on official legal requests made to Twitter under Indian law is published twice a year, the spokesperson added.
According to Twitter records, many content removal demands from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology simply cited a violation of Section 69(A) of the Information Technology Act, 2000. When Twitter receives such a demand, it usually sends an email notice to the affected user. (Twitter says it does not send such notifications if prohibited from doing so.)
In August, Md. Asif Khan, a Mumbai-based professional with more than 20,000 followers, received such a notice from the Twitter Legal team, saying the company had received a request from an authorised entity in India claiming that one of his tweets violated the law(s) of the country, without specifying which law was violated, or which agency had made the complaint.
The cited tweet promoted a documentary made by activists who had visited Kashmir after the abrogation of Section 370, using the hashtags #KashmirSolidarityDay and #KashmirUnderThreat. Twitter said it had not taken any action on the request “at this time”, but was informing him of the legal demand “in the interest of transparency”. If any action was taken, it would notify the third party Lumen database — again, if it was not prohibited from doing so.
Twitter did not respond to a query on whether the Indian government ever prohibits it from making content removal demands public on Lumen.
“I have received several such legal notices and also been temporarily blocked and shadow-banned by Twitter itself, with no specific reasons given,” said Mr. Khan. Shadow-banning occurs when Twitter limits the visibility of posts and users.
In December 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye wrote to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey expressing concern about the widespread removal of content related to Kashmir on the demand of the government, which affected Kashmiri journalists and activists among others.
Sharing the letter on Twitter, Mr. Kaye said, “Platforms may be improving but they are often opaque to users whose accounts are suspended or posts hidden from view, especially when under pressure from governments.” It is this opacity that frustrated social activist and former civil servant Harsh Mander when the Twitter handle of his communal harmony organisation Karwan-e-Mohabbat was suspended for a day last week.
“We did not receive any notice before the suspension. After we appealed and they restored the account; they sent us a bland statement, saying it was something about multiple hashtags,” said Mr. Mander. The Twitter statement on the appeal gives no clear reason for the action, but warns that future behaviour violating its rules may result in permanent suspension.
Ankur Singh, a Noida-based professional and right-wing commentator whose 53,000 followers including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, claims Twitter censorship shows a “liberal bias” and participated in a right-wing youth protest outside Twitter’s India headquarters during Mr. Dorsey’s visit in February.
“Twitter blocked my account on January 23 without any valid reason, and said it was a permanent suspension,” he said. After an online protest, Twitter restored his account the following day, saying it was wrongly included with spam accounts, but other right-wingers blocked at the same time are still suspended, he said, adding that he had been shadow-banned during the Lok Sabha elections.
Unlike legal demands by government agencies, there is no record of content removed or shadow-banned by Twitter itself. Although Twitter users from both extremes of the political spectrum claim that they are being affected by the platform’s censorship, right-wing users do not get content removal notices on government demand, agreed Mr. Singh. “Why will the government take action against their own supporters?” he asked.