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How the Big Tech vs State tussle reared its head in the Indian farmers' protest

The delicate and contentious middle ground between compliance with the law of the land and freedom of speech will be a hard one to traverse

Published: Jun 14, 2023 05:58:26 PM IST
Updated: Jun 14, 2023 06:45:31 PM IST

The long-drawn, now historic farmer protests that laid siege to the country’s capital and the pivoting role played by Twitter in the making and dissemination of the protest news on its platform had caused the Indian government to issue takedown orders of many accounts that spread misinformation triggered by fake news like reports of genocide.

How the Big Tech vs State tussle reared its head in the Indian farmers' protestImage: Pallava Bagla/Corbis via Getty Images

Agitators and farmers storm the iconic Red Fort during Republic Day and hoist flags from the ramparts—where traditionally India's Prime Minister hoists the national flag on Independence Day—to protest over new farming laws on January 26, 2021, in New Delhi, India. Twitter was reluctant to take action against accounts on their platform endorsing and glorifying the Republic Day assault on Delhi’s Red Fort by a group claiming to be supporters of farmers. India is a key market for the micro-blogging platform, where it has estimated 23.6 million users.

How the Big Tech vs State tussle reared its head in the Indian farmers' protestImage: Sanchit Khanna/H T via Getty Images

Leaders of various farmer unions speaking to media after exiting from talks with the Centre over new farm laws at Vigyan Bhawan on January 8, 2021, in New Delhi, India. The centre had asked Twitter to take down accounts with alleged Khalistan links and remove misinformation based on fake news from the platform because it had the potential to inflame the protests further. Twitter responded by blocking some of the accounts but later unblocked them, saying they can’t restrict accounts belonging to activists, journalists and politicians, citing freedom of speech, which irked the IT ministry.

Also read: Who is Linda Yaccarino, newly appointed CEO of Elon Musk's Twitter?

How the Big Tech vs State tussle reared its head in the Indian farmers' protestImage: Sanchit Khanna/H T via Getty Images

A damaged security screening station, smashed security cameras, and ransacked administrative offices, a day after protestors against farm laws stormed the complex at Red Fort on January 27, 2021, in New Delhi, India. Stating that Twitter could not possibly assume the role of a court when certain accounts had the potential to inflame protests,  the Indian government responded that Dorsey and his team were in repeated and continuous violations of non-compliance with Indian law by refusing to take the accounts down. Then the IT ministry gave a ‘last chance’, stating Twitter’s failure to comply would lead to losing safe harbour protections under IT Act 2000 and becoming legally liable for content users’ posts on its platform. No social media platform can efficiently function without protection, a crucial tenet of online free speech that helped companies like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in their meteoric rise.

How the Big Tech vs State tussle reared its head in the Indian farmers' protestImage: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A file photo of Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, at a crypto-currency conference in Miami, Florida. Dorsey alleged during a recent Youtube interview that Indian Government had pressured the platform during the 2021 farmers' protests, threatening to shut down its site in India and raid its employees’ homes unless Twitter removed sensitive posts about the protest.

How the Big Tech vs State tussle reared its head in the Indian farmers' protestImage: Win McNamee/Getty Images

A pro-Trump mob breaks into the US Capitol on January 06, 2021, in Washington, DC. The Indian government has responded to Dorsey’s recent allegations, citing partisan behaviour on the part of Twitter under Dorsey in removing misinformation, citing how the platform did remove posts supporting and celebrating the siege on the Capitol in Washington DC by supporters of former US President Donald Trump on January 06, 2021.

Also read: The social costs of not sharing fake news

How the Big Tech vs State tussle reared its head in the Indian farmers' protestImage: Raj K Raj/ HT via Getty Images

A farmer uses a mobile phone while resting in the back of a tractor trolley on a blocked highway during a protest against new farm laws at Singhu Border (Delhi-Haryana) on December 13, 2020, in New Delhi, India. The spat between Dorsey and the Centre begs the question: Was the Indian government justified in asking the Twitter platform to suppress large numbers of handles about the farmers' agitation because some posts like “stop genocide of farmers” were inflammatory? Did Twitter under Dorsey have a problem accepting the sovereignty of Indian law and behave as if the laws of India did not apply to it?

How the Big Tech vs State tussle reared its head in the Indian farmers' protestImage: Photo Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images

A file image of Elon Musk’s Twitter profile with more than 80 million followers proudly proclaims ‘Free speech as the bedrock of a functioning democracy’. After his takeover of Twitter, Musk said the media rules in India were quite strict, and companies cannot go beyond the laws of the land, and they will comply with the laws than risk sending employees to jail, alluding to IT Rules 2021. However, Twitter’s recent internal documents lay bare its controversial decisions, such as blocking certain news stories and restricting the reach of certain accounts, breaching the supposed neutrality the platform represents.

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