India orders Twitter to take down tweets critical of its coronavirus handling

Twitter has taken down dozens of tweets in India, some of which were critical of New Delhi’s handling of the coronavirus, to comply with an emergency order from the Indian government at a time when South Asian nation is grappling with a globally unprecedented surge in Covid cases.

New Delhi made an emergency order to Twitter to censor over 50 tweets in the country, Twitter disclosed on Lumen database, a Harvard University project. The social network has complied with the request, and withheld those tweets from users in India.

TechCrunch has learned that Twitter is not the only platform affected by the new order. Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. (Credit where it’s due: Twitter is one of the handful of companies that timely discloses takedown actions and also shares who made those requests.)

The world’s second largest nation — which has also previously ordered Twitter to block some tweets and accounts critical of its policies and threatened jail time to employees in the event of non-compliance — comes as the country reports a record of over 330,000 new Covid cases a day, the worst by any country. Multiple news reports, doctors, and academicians say that even these Covid figures, as alarmingly high as they are, are underreported.

Amid an unprecedented collapse of the nation’s health infrastructure, Twitter has become a rare beam of hope in what it describes as one of its “priority markets” as people crowdsource data to help one another find medicines and availability of beds and oxygen supplies.

A copy of one of Indian government’s orders disclosed by Twitter. (Lumen database)

Policy-focused Indian news outlet Medianama, which first reported on New Delhi’s new order Friday, said among those whose tweets have been censored in India include high profile public figures such as Revanth Reddy (a Member of Parliament), Moloy Ghatak (a minister in West Bengal), Vineet Kumar Singh (actor) filmmakers Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das.

In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch, “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. 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. In all cases, we notify the account holder directly so they’re aware that we’ve received a legal order pertaining to the account.”

“We notify the user(s) by sending a message to the email address associated with the account(s), if available. Read more about our Legal request FAQs.  The legal requests that we receive are detailed in the bianual Twitter Transparency Report, and requests to withhold content are published on Lumen.”

India has become one of the key markets for several global technology giants as they look to accelerate their userbase growth and make long-term bets. But India, once the example of an ideal open market, has also proposed or enforced several rules in the country in recent years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership that in some ways arguably makes it difficult for American firms to keep expanding in the South Asian market without compromising on some of the values that users in their home market take for granted.

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