Modi Govt's Twitter Removal Requests Now a Steady Trickle

Instead of sending out large requests to Twitter to have certain tweets and accounts blocked, the Modi government appears to be going back towards its piece-meal approach of sending more frequent request letters but with fewer listed takedowns.

New Delhi: After the large-scale blocking orders issued last September, which sparked controversy over their vague and broad-sweeping nature, the Narendra Modi government has continued to send out a trickle of content removal requests to Twitter.

These requests, shown below, are still primarily aimed at censoring content that either revolves around violence and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir or the accounts of users who speak in support of Kashmiri separatism.

Over the last six months, the IT ministry has sent four blocking orders to Twitter, using its powers under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The section allows the issuing of “directions for blocking for public access of any information” if it is in the interest of the country’s sovereignty, integrity, defence or security.

The removal requests ask for the blocking of nine Twitter accounts and one tweet.

Unlike the large-scale September 2017 blocks – which were over-arching in nature and asked for over a 100 accounts, tweets and hashtags to be blocked – the Modi government appears to going back towards its piece-meal approach that will have more requests sent but with a lesser number accounts or tweets to be blocked.

For instance, a request sent on April 16, 2018 (and complied with in the first week of May 2018) only asks for a single tweet to be blocked.

India’s Twitter Censorship Requests

Senior officials within the IT ministry – who mostly forward requests that come from the home affairs ministry or law enforcement agencies –  that The Wire spoke to pointed out there were two advantages to sending more requests but with a lesser number of tweets.

“One main advantage is that it doesn’t cause a big commotion the way it happened when we issued a long list to be blocked. Last time since there were a lot of Kashmir tweets to be blocked, and Twitter sends notifications to the people whose accounts are blocked, it caused a big fuss. Secondly, its more difficult for Twitter to say ‘no’ if we ask for fewer handles to be blocked,” an official, who declined to be identified, said.

The move towards more targeted or specific blocking orders – however – has long been viewed as a positive step by sections of India’s civil society. Asking for accounts or tweets to be blocked in bulk has been seen as an under-handed method of clubbing offending content, often displeasing to the ruling government, with other content that may deserved to be blocked or taken down.

For instance, as The Wire reported last September, the Modi government asked for Twitter content on political gossip and beef-related violence to be blocked as part of a larger list that included the handles of Pakistani terrorists and supporters of violence in Kashmir.

On the other hand, as the IT ministry official pointed out above, it’s unclear how the stark increase in number of requests affects the ability of Twitter officials to reject the Indian government’s demands or disagree with the logic put forth.

For example, according to Twitter’s own data, India (government and police) sent only 14 removal requests between July and December 2014. This has increased steadily over the last three years to a significant 142 requests between July and December 2017. In the last six month period, Twitter agreed to ‘withhold’ (a term the social media services uses when it uses geo-location technology to block a tweet)

What adds to this argument is that the IT ministry was particularly displeased with the manner in which Twitter handled the September 2017 blocks. The micro-blogging service has for some years adopted a practice of uploading “actioned requests to withhold content to Lumen”, an independent database maintained by Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Centre that collects removal requests and acts as a transparency resource.

At the time though, Twitter not only uploaded to Lumen the whole list of handles/tweets/hashtags that the Modi government wanted to censor, but also the IT ministry’s blocking committee letters. This level of transparency allowed Indian Twitter users to see that the Centre not only wanted specific content blocked but also wanted to censor major hashtags, in a move that was described by civil society stakeholders as a gross over-reach of governmental power.

Twitter’s decision to upload all of this to Lumen, according to people with knowledge of the matter, caused “great embarrassment”  and prompted the ministry to send off a sharply-worded letter that demanded the immediate removal of the committee’s letters.

Since then, the letters and list of content removal requests have been taken down from Lumen (they are no longer accessible) and have been heavily edited.

Twitter also no longer reports what the Modi government asks to be taken down, but merely puts out a list of content that it has agreed to “withhold’ or act upon.

UPA versus NDA

The last four years have seen a jump in Twitter censorship requests. Data show that the number of removal requests put forth by the NDA government (from July 2014 to December 2017) has increased from the days of the UPA-II government (January 2012 to June 2014).

However, this should be viewed with appropriate context. Firstly, the importance of Twitter and the number of Indian Twitter users has increased in the last three years. This, some say, could explain the increase in number of blocking orders as Twitter becomes an important part of the Centre’s social media governance efforts.

Secondly, the UPA-II government also has resorted to other methods of blocking Twitter content. For instance, during the controversial blocks of 2012, where it tried to censor the handles of Indian journalists, it issued blocking orders to the Department of Telecommunications, asking it to direct Internet service providers to restrict access to online content; instead of asking Twitter or other social media companies directly.