Twitter said on Tuesday that it had sued the Indian government, challenging a recent order to remove content and block accounts within the country.
The suit, filed in the Karnataka High Court in Bangalore, comes after a government threat of criminal action against Twitter executives if they failed to comply with the order, the company said.
The company had been given a deadline of Monday to block dozens of accounts and posts from view within India. It complied, but then sought judicial relief.
The Indian government urged Twitter to follow the rules. “It is everyone’s responsibility to abide by the laws passed by the country’s Parliament,” Ashwini Vaishnaw, the minister of electronics and information technology, said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Twitter’s suit follows separate legal action by WhatsApp also pushing back against the country’s stringent new rules involving the internet, which WhatsApp has described as oppressive.
The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have worked for several years to corral the power of the tech companies and more strictly police what is said online, and they have used the new information technology laws to clamp down on dissent. Twitter, for example, has been told to remove content related to complaints about civil liberties, protests, press freedoms and criticisms of how the government has handled the pandemic. WhatsApp had been told it would be required to make people’s private messages “traceable” to government agencies upon request.
In addition, the new rules required social media companies to employ executives based in India to make sure the companies complied with government requests for takedown of content and blocking of accounts. If that did not happen, those executives could be held criminally liable, facing potential jail terms of up to seven years.
Twitter has previously criticized the government’s tactics and called on it to respect freedom of expression. The company said that India’s laws were being used “arbitrarily and disproportionately” against the company and its users, many of whom are journalists, opposition politicians and nonprofit groups.
Last year, WhatsApp asked the Delhi High Court to block the enforceability of the rule about making people’s messages traceable. The government has said with regard to the WhatsApp case that the right to privacy is not “absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions.”
That case is still pending.
The lawsuits are part of a broadening battle between the biggest tech companies and governments around the world over which of them has the upper hand. Australia and the European Union have drafted or passed laws to limit the power of Google, Facebook and other companies over online speech, while other countries are trying to rein in the companies’ services to stifle dissent and quash protests.
Experts said the Indian government’s move to force Twitter to block accounts and posts amounted to censorship, at a time when the government is accused of weaponizing a loose definition of what content it finds offensive to go after critics.
In February 2021, the company permanently blocked more than 500 accounts and moved an unspecified number of others from view within India after the government accused them of making inflammatory remarks about Mr. Modi. Twitter said at the time that it was taking no action on the accounts of journalists, politicians and activists, saying it did not believe the orders to block them “are consistent with Indian law.”
In May of that year, the police in India raided Twitter’s offices after the company decided to label tweets by politicians from Mr. Modi’s party as “manipulated media.” Those tweets attacked opposition members who had been using the platform to criticize Mr. Modi and what they called his government’s stumbling response to the pandemic.
And in recent weeks, the police in New Delhi arrested Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of a prominent fact-checking website, for a 2018 tweet that had shared an image from an old Bollywood film. The government said the image was causing communal disharmony, after a Twitter account with just a few followers and only one tweet complained about it and tagged the Delhi police — before the account disappearing soon after.
Last week, Twitter was ordered to block tweets from Freedom House, an American nonprofit organization that mentioned India as an example of a country where press freedom was on the decline.
“It is telling how an international report about India’s press freedom rankings is responded to with censorship, rather than debate and discussion,” said Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “It is an undemocratic and authoritarian response.”
Lawyers and technology experts say Twitter and other social media companies are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are required to comply with the country’s laws but they are also challenging them to uphold freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy.
“I think they are fighting a losing battle, because on the one hand, they’re taking the government to the courts, but on the other hand, they tend to cave in,” said Salman Waris, a lawyer at TechLegis in New Delhi who specializes in international technology law.
Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from New Delhi.