Indians shouldn’t have to rely on the “benevolence of companies” like Twitter to protect their rights

Twitter gears up for a court battle.
Twitter gears up for a court battle.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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Twitter suing the Indian government may be an applause-worthy move, but it’ll take a lot more to safeguard Indians’ free speech rights.

The government usually sends out secret takedown orders and strong-arms companies like Twitter into following them. It threatens action for non-compliance, or worse, arrests their officials. Many a time, these orders are unwarranted. But the likes of YouTube and Facebook tend to comply without a peep.

Only last month, VPN providers were spooked—many exited the country in droves—by a law that would require them to store user data for up to five years.

Had it not been for Twitter, citizens would not even know if and when the state is acting beyond its legal confines, let alone fight for their own data privacy and freedom of speech.

Twitter tells Indians about censorship

“Through a voluntary mechanism, Twitter sporadically uploads the specific web addresses included in blocking orders to the Lumen Database, a project that houses legal complaints and requests for the removal of content,” explains Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation.

It’s how Indians know that journalists, politicians, and activisits are being silenced; that tweets around farmers’ protests and covid-19 mismanagement were being withheld; and that their country is the largest source of government requests for information on the microblogging site.

“From a citizens’ rights perspective, however, the need to rely on a voluntary mechanism is a cause for concern,” Gupta said. “It is also unsustainable as it may eventually come under threat.”

Moreover, just because companies drag the government to court, it doesn’t mean there will be a resolution. In 2021, when WhatsApp sued the government over new laws that would force the messaging app to break privacy protection, the government claimed the right to privacy is not absolute but “subject to reasonable restrictions.”

The need for transparency

“What Twitter has done is courageous but users can’t rely on the benevolence of companies,” Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer and online civil rights activist, wrote to Quartz. Especially when authorities are pushing for controversial new IT rules that will allow them to change content moderation decisions by social media platforms, among other things.

“The opaqueness around such blocking and content track-down needs to stop,” Chaudhary argued. “The government, including the judiciary, should, instead of insisting on more laws that can be handmaid for political censorship, do what the constitution requires them to do: protect free speech and civil liberties.”