Twitter on Tuesday filed a suit against the Indian government in an attempt to limit government oversight over politically charged content moderation decisions. The lawsuit, filed in the Karnataka High Court, also alleges abuse of power by elected officials in India.
India revamped its social media laws such that companies are required to comply with government takedown requests before proceeding with any legal challenges. In Twitter's most recent transparency report, India’s government accounted for 11% of global legal requests, behind only Japan, Russia and Turkey. India previously accounted for as much as 18% of Twitter's global takedown requests.
Twitter has taken issue with the flood of content moderation requests issued under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. The government previously told Twitter to remove content expressing support for the farmers’ protests and Sikh independence.
Last year, the Indian government threatened to jail India-based Twitter executives for up to seven years. That threat came after Twitter restored more than 250 accounts the government had requested be removed. Many of those accounts were critical of the BJP. The government alleged some of those accounts were spreading misinformation and inciting violence.
Twitter said India’s government “arbitrarily and disproportionately” went after content and users on its platform. In February 2021, Twitter suggested it wouldn’t comply with government requests to remove accounts for media outlets, journalists, politicians and activists. In a statement released at the time, the company said it hadn’t removed such accounts and believed doing so would “violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.” Eventually, though, Twitter complied with many of those requests.
Meta-owned WhatsApp filed a similar lawsuit in the Delhi High Court last year, requesting a legal review of the government mandate to make messages traceable. That case is ongoing.
India has a history of removing popular social media platforms when political circumstances intervene. In the summer of 2020, after a violent border skirmish with China left roughly 20 Indian soldiers dead, India banned TikTok from the country. TikTok had around 167 million users in India prior to the ban, making it one of the biggest markets for the China-based ByteDance.
Based on past experience in other nations such as Nigeria, Twitter will likely exercise caution in escalating tensions with the Indian government. The Nigerian government blocked Twitter from operating in the country for a seven-month period that ended in January 2022. Nigeria’s government took issue with Twitter’s decision to delete a tweet from President Muhammadu Buhari that many interpreted as a call for violence against the Igbo ethnic group. As part of the reinstatement deal, Twitter agreed to appoint a representative who would interface directly with Nigeria’s regulatory agency overseeing technology.
Elon Musk could also throw a wrench in things should his acquisition attempt go through. In an April Ted Talk, Musk said Twitter should abide by the laws of the countries in which it operates.
For now, Twitter isn’t rocking the boat all that much in India. Even as it signaled its opposition to the government requests, Twitter has still complied with many of them. The lawsuit takes the company’s grievance through the appropriate channels, and allows Twitter to formally express its dissent without unilaterally making content decisions that would rile up the BJP.