New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government made “many requests” to Twitter during the farmers’ protests for the deletion of content by journalists critical of official policy and also threatened to shut down Twitter in India and raid its employees’ homes, Twitter founder and former owner Jack Dorsey revealed in an online interview on Monday night.
Though Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Union minister of state for electronics and technology, has called Dorsey’s detailed claims an “outright lie,” what transpired between the government and the social media company in 2021 – including police raids in two cities – is a matter of public record.
In an interview to the YouTube channel Breaking Points, Dorsey was asked by hosts Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti if current Twitter owner Elon Musk has lived up to his own free speech commitments on the platform and how Dorsey sees the tensions between a company’s desire to uphold free speech but also make profits.
“We were more, you know, ideally going for a global appreciation of free speech and free expression itself and Elon took on a principle of anything that’s allowed by law on the platform, which sets up a dynamic where you have countries like India and Turkey who made many requests to us back in the day to take down particular journalist accounts or give contact information and to remove them from the platform, so I think it’s easier to do in the US,” Dorsey said.
Touching on the fact that the presence of an advertising model allows advertisers to boycott a platform until policies change, Dorsey said, “Elon…can always be compelled. He has one person, he’s one single point of failure and the pressure can be put upon him by the United States, by the Department of Defense, by China, by Turkey, by India of course, and…this is going to be the reality for any centrally controlled company…”
Dorsey noted that if Twitter follows the relevant law on free speech in various countries rather than being committed to a universal idea of free speech then governments in countries like Turkey and India will use the fig leaf of the ‘law’ to demand the takedown of content that they do not like.
By way of example, Dorsey said that in April 2023, Elon Musk had told the BBC that he was likely to comply with the blocking orders issued by the Indian government instead of facing a situation where Twitter employees could be sent to jail.
“The rules in India for what can appear on social media are quite strict, and we can’t go beyond the laws of a country,” Musk had said.
Later in the interview when asked as to how Twitter is meant to deal with takedown requests, Dorsey cited the example of India.
“India for example is a country that had many requests of us around the farmer’s protest around particular journalists that were critical of the government and it manifested in ways such as, ‘we will shut put her down in India’ – which is a very large market for us – we will raid the homes of your employees, which they did, we will shut down your offices if you don’t follow suit. And this is India, a democratic country,” he said.
In February 2021, a slew of Indian Twitter accounts – belonging to individuals, groups and media organisations – which posted updates and opinions on the farmers’ protests were withheld by the social media site in response to legal demands from the Indian government. The news agency ANI had then quoted unnamed ‘sources’ as having said that Twitter made the move on the request of the Union home ministry headed by Amit Shah.
Dorsey also noted that Twitter got many requests from the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government in Turkey, which he described as “very similar”, and Nigeria too.
Dorsey’s comments set off reactions on social media, and Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar responded with a long tweet in which he said that this was “perhaps an attempt to brush out that very dubious period” of Twitter’s history.
Chandrasekhar said Twitter repeatedly failed to comply with Indian law between 2020 and June 2022. “Dorseys Twitter regime had a problem accepting the sovereignty of Indian law (sic),” he wrote.
Chandrasekhar claimed that during the “protests in January 2021, there was a lot of misinformation and even reports of genocide which were definitely fake” and added that the government was obligated to remove said misinformation.
He also said that no one was raided or sent to jail.
What Chandrasekhar did not say was that Twitter faced the wrath of the Modi government only after it sought to check the dissemination of misinformation by the ruling BJP,
In May 2021, several officers from Delhi Police’s Special Cell arrived at Twitter India’s offices in Delhi and Gurgaon ostensibly in order to understand why the social media platform had chosen to label a controversial tweet by BJP chief spokesperson Sambit Patra about a purported Congress ‘toolkit” as “manipulated media”.
This raid came two days after the Narendra Modi government warned the platform to remove the label.
A week later, Delhi Police’s special cell went to Bengaluru to question Twitter’s then-India head Manish Maheshwari.
When the government introduced new IT Rules giving it greater power to take down content on social media, Twitter challenged these rules in the Karnataka high court. In its petition, the social media company, cited several blocking directions issued to it to remove tweets, accounts and URLs on the platform. In April 2023, the court reserved its order and its judgment is awaited..
In May, the Lumen database which tracks social media takedown requests said that Twitter has stopped sharing reports of external content takedown requests it receives with the database.