The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Twitter’s case against India is crucial to the internet’s future

In this photo taken on April 26, the Twitter logo is seen outside its headquarters in downtown San Francisco, Calif. (Amy Osborne/AFP)

Twitter is taking on the Indian government, and the stakes are high. The company’s lodging of a lawsuit to dispute overbroad content-blocking orders could mark a pivotal moment for internet speech around the world.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has been chipping away at free expression online for some time, most notably with the passing of a law last year extending the executive’s censorship powers. Now, the government can demand that news and information providers remove certain material within 36 hours of receiving a request, and it can initiate criminal proceedings against a designated company grievance officer located in the country if these mandates are rebuffed. These threats don’t appear idle: Twitter’s top executive was summoned by police in one state for failing to take down a violent video; armed forces once showed up at the company’s offices as part of an investigation about a matter as anodyne as a tweet having been labeled “manipulated media.”

Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that while Twitter has in the past resisted blocking the posts of Indian journalists, activists and politicians, the company acquiesced this month after apparently receiving a noncompliance letter. The firm geographically restricted tweets from writers including Post Opinions contributor Rana Ayyub as well as advocacy organization Freedom House. The decision reflects the difficult position Twitter found itself in: bound by the law wherever it chooses to operate, even when that law doesn’t reflect its values — and with the safety of its employees at stake. Twitter’s next move, similarly, revealed its limited avenues for recourse. The company filed a complaint in court alleging not that the government’s law is itself impermissible but that it is being impermissibly applied.

Twitter’s petition argues that the government has tried to smother more tweets than the law authorizes. That’s in line with critics’ claims that the administration has been more interested in scrubbing out dissent and unflattering reporting than in protecting anyone’s safety. The platform also contends that authorities have failed to provide justification for their demands, or to review past takedowns to ensure they remain necessary. The case is, essentially, a test of whether free expression in India will continue to thrive — whether, when an unjust law unjustly applied makes it all but impossible for a company to protect speech, the judiciary will step in to protect it.

This battle is not only about Twitter, and not only about India. Some countries have already imposed rules as restrictive as India’s revised code; others are considering it. The same goes for the so-called hostage-taking laws threatening employees that intimidate firms into closer cooperation. Not only social media companies should be resisting them. For all the responsibility Twitter may have to its users, or India’s government to its citizens, democracies around the world committed to civil liberties also have a duty to fight for the internet’s future.

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