India's top court tackles social media in free speech case

A man reads tweets by Indian celebrities, one of the many backing the Indian government, on his mobile in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. It took just one tweet from pop star Rihanna to anger the Indian government and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, after she tweeted about the farmer protests that have gripped India. Critics say the government has used the massive demonstrations to escalate a crackdown on free speech, detaining journalists and freezing Twitter accounts. Hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts, including those of news websites, activists and a farmers union, were suspended on Monday. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) (Manish Swarup, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

NEW DELHI – India’s top court on Friday asked for the government and Twitter’s response to a petition seeking greater regulation of content on social media platforms amid a debate over free speech.

The case comes during a growing standoff between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government and Twitter, after the company refused to fully comply with orders to remove certain accounts that were critical of the government's handling of monthslong farmer protests.

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Twitter said on Wednesday it won’t suspend accounts of news organizations, journalists, activists and politicians, citing its “principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression.”

But Twitter did suspend hundreds of accounts only in India after the government identified those it says have been spreading misinformation and provocative content linked to farmers who are protesting agricultural laws since November on the outskirts of New Delhi.

The petition was filed by Vinit Goenka, a member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. His attorney told the court that there were hundreds of fake Twitter handles and Facebook accounts in the name of eminent people and dignitaries that were being used to tarnish the image of the Indian government.

Critics have accused the Modi government of using the massive demonstrations to escalate a crackdown on free speech and silence opponents.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule after getting responses from the government and Twitter.

The petition comes in the backdrop of the government's drive to further regulate online content. The New Delhi Television news channel said the government has drawn up draft rules to regulate social media, streaming and digital news content, which will include a code of ethics and a mechanism to report inappropriate content and ask for its removal. The proposed rules haven’t been made public.

Twitter’s decision to not remove certain accounts unnerved the government on Thursday, which warned the company that it “must respect” Indian laws “irrespective of Twitter’s own rules and guidelines.” The government has also served the company with a non-compliance notice and threatened its officials with a fine and imprisonment of up to seven years for violating the order.

On Thursday, Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in Parliament that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn would have to follow the Indian Constitution. He warned the social media websites of “strict action” if they were “misused to spread fake news and fuel violence.”

“We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve," Twitter said Wednesday. “We are exploring options under Indian law — both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted. We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter, and strongly believe that the tweets should flow.”

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