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Twitter feels the heat as India tightens its grip on social platforms

Chaudhary Sukhram Singh Yadav, a second generation MP from India’s opposition party Samajwadi, has a fairly limited online presence. His Twitter account, created last February, has less than 250 subscribers.

But his account suspension last week reflected the dilemma Twitter faces as it navigates an increasingly deep stalemate with New Delhi.

Yadav was one of hundreds of accounts blocked by the platform at the request of the Indian government after using a controversial hashtag to support widespread protests by farmers in the country.

However, Twitter has refused to comply with all government demands to censor the accounts of protesters and those discussing their cause, in some cases citing the country’s own free speech laws – a position that has ignited relations with New Delhi.

The battle is likely to rage for months on end, experts said, especially as the Indian government seeks to tighten control over major social platforms.

“The trends are pretty clear,” said Apar Gupta, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “There is a definite movement towards creating barriers for large social media companies in India, which is not only stemming from economic interests, but also from a desire for greater political control.

This deadlock could set a dangerous precedent for how other democratic governments deal with online dissent, said Coby Goldberg, analyst with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.

“Many other countries could be encouraged to present Twitter with the same ultimatum,” Goldberg said: “Adopt content moderation based on national policies, or run the threat of losing market access.”

‘Always watched’

Confrontation with Indian authorities comes less than a year after New Delhi TikTok prohibited and more than a hundred other Chinese applications in retaliation death of 21 Indian soldiers in a border dispute with Chinese troops.

Tensions between New Delhi and Twitter erupted last month, after a long period farmers’ events against agricultural market reforms have become violent, with clashes between demonstrators and police in the heart of the capital.

A 21-year-old environmental activist in India has been arrested after allegedly using social media to support farmer protests by sharing a campaign ‘toolbox’ promoted by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg © Money Sharma / AFP / Getty

The Indian government subsequently ordered Twitter to block accounts it accused of trying to “ignite the situation.” Twitter only partially complied, prompting a scathing rebuke in which New Delhi expressed “deep disappointment»On the platform.

The stalemate also comes as India’s ruling party Bharatiya Janata clamps down on public criticism, using internet shutdowns and colonial-era laws to discourage dissent.

India’s Home Office plans to recruit “cybercrime volunteers” to report objectionable content in such broad legal categories as “against the sovereignty and integrity of India.”

“This is government-facilitated vigilantism on the surface,” said Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist. “You are going to be afraid of always being watched.”

In this feverish climate, New Delhi’s scrutiny of social media content – and content moderation policies – is expected to intensify, alongside support for local tech platforms.

“The situation for all social media companies – not just Twitter – will become increasingly difficult,” Gupta said. “Vast amounts of social commentary will be directed against them, expressing a nationalistic sentiment for a more self-reliant and self-sustaining tech ecosystem in which companies in India, along with Indian entrepreneurs, operate the platforms.

For Twitter, a huge and growing potential user market is at stake. According to Counterpoint Research, India’s internet-connected population is expected to grow from 600 million last year to 850 million by the end of 2022.

Although the app has only been downloaded 90 million times from India’s Google Play and Apple App stores, according to Sensor Tower, compared to WhatsApp’s 1.4 billion downloads, it remains a vital forum for influencers, the media. and business communities.

New Delhi has promoted local Indian technology platforms to compete with large global groups © Manjunath Kiran / AFP / Getty

Narendra Modi’s government is increasingly blaming online content. Authorities in India made 2,800 requests to Twitter to remove or deny access to content in the first half of 2020, a 254% increase from the second half of 2019 and the fifth highest in the world, according to the latest transparency report from Twitter.

The company responded to just under 14% of these requests, compared to more than 36% in the second half of 2019.

“Things are definitely getting worse when it comes to internet freedom in India,” said Udbhav Tiwari, public policy adviser at the non-profit internet group Mozilla.

Beyond India

Twitter is banned in a number of countries, including Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and China.

In India, Gupta said it was “inevitable” that Twitter and other foreign digital media platforms would face tighter regulations and a steady increase in requests for content blocking.

“It is only a matter of time before regulations come to make operations more difficult thanks to more government control,” he said. “There will be an increase in requests for removal of user content and requests for user information.”

Similar battles are being fought elsewhere in Asia, as democratic and authoritarian states seek more control content online, urging companies to violate their own free speech standards in order to continue operating there.

Facebook censored content from Vietnamese and Thai dissidents at the behest of their governments, while Google has been criticized for curbing free speech in Vietnam. Dia Kayyali, associate director of advocacy at digital human rights organization Mnemonic, expected such pressures to escalate.

“We’re going to see – nationally and internationally – a variety of ways of trying to force platforms to take on more responsibility, but also of trying to force platforms to do what governments want them to do. they do, ”she said.

Indian authorities are also promoting indigenous Twitter rivals such as Koo, a brand new microblogging app that works in eight Indian languages ​​and has been downloaded 3.3 million times.

As authorities wrangled publicly with Twitter, several Indian ministers and government departments promoted their accounts on Koo, contributing to a 215% increase in downloads from the previous week, according to Sensor Tower data.

But Counterpoint analyst Neil Shah said creating a viable local competitor for a high-quality global application is rare. After an initial increase in users of Indian short form video apps after the TikTok ban, he said, many users simply migrated to Instagram.

Among those betting on Koo is Mohandas Pai, a former senior executive and board member of Indian IT giant Infosys and an investor in the emerging platform.

Pai said the global social media giants had damaged their credibility by taking political sides in the United States and elsewhere, and would face increasing regulatory scrutiny in India, discomfort with their increasing monopoly powers.

“We are not China,” Pai told the Financial Times. “We will never build a strong firewall to exclude everyone. But all of these social media platforms will have to obey the law. On this point, there will be no compromise.

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