with Aaron Schaffer

Twitter has complied with requests from the Indian government to remove dozens of posts that were critical of the country’s handling of the pandemic, as India yesterday hit a global record in new daily coronavirus cases. 

The company confirmed in a statement to The Washington Post that it withheld some of the tweets in India and notified users the action was taken in response to a legal request from the Indian government. The tweets can still be viewed outside India as long as they don’t break Twitter’s rules, spokeswoman Jen Santamaria said. 

Details of the government orders were published on an online database tracking online content removal requests, and they show the orders extended to tweets by a state minister, an opposition member of the Indian Parliament, journalists and others. They included posts criticizing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as well as photos of people receiving medical care in the street as hospitals overflow. 

The New York Times reports that government officials said the posts could “incite panic, used images out of context, and could hinder its response to the pandemic.” The Times reports that the government also sent similar requests to Facebook, but the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The takedowns could ignite battles between the Indian government and tech giants about the future of online speech. 

Journalists, academics and activists widely criticized the Indian government for censoring political speech about a worsening public health crisis. The companies' handling of those requests is a test of their repeated commitments to preserve free speech around the world. But at the same time, the companies are aggressively trying to expand their footprints in India's critical market as more and more people come online. 

The takedowns, which were first reported by the Indian technology policy website Medianama, come as the Biden administration promised under pressure to provide more aid to India as the country reached a record for the most coronavirus fatalities in a single day. The stunning surge has overwhelmed hospitals, and oxygen supplies are running dangerously low. Crematoriums in some cities are running around-the-clock as the death toll mounts. 

“It's hard to imagine more core political speech at a more serious time,” Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who researches online speech, tweeted. “India v. platforms is the most [important] battle for online speech right now.” 

As countries around the globe consider new regulations to rein in content on social media, Nilay Patel, editor in chief of the technology news publication the Verge, said the situation could have far-reaching implications. 

“The heart of the argument that platforms have their own free speech rights to moderate as they want is right here: a government telling Twitter what to do, and Twitter being made to comply even though it is obviously the wrong thing to do,” he wrote on Twitter. 

Ian Bassin, the founder and director of the nonprofit Protect Democracy, called Twitter to reinstate the posts:

This isn't the Indian government's first clash with tech titans over online speech. 

Twitter earlier this year blocked, unblocked and then blocked again hundreds of accounts in India for posting material the government viewed as inflammatory amid farmers' protests. The government threatened Twitter with legal action, which could have resulted in jail time for Twitter executives, if the company didn't comply with its orders. 

The government in February also announced stricter rules for companies including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp that aimed to counter the rise of misinformation and violent materials. The companies were required to establish a “grievance redressal mechanism” to respond to user complaints, and name contact details for officers who could also respond. The companies were also required to appoint officials to coordinate with local law enforcement. 

The controversy over the takedowns come as doctors, hospitals and others in India are turning to social media for life-saving supplies. 

People in India are using hashatags like #COvidSOS and #COVIDEmergency2021 to seek critical supplies like ICU beds, oxygen and plasma, The Verge's Kim Lyons reports. Such posts have flooded WhatsApp Groups, Facebook and Twitter. From Andre Borges, of India digital entertainment company Pocket Aces:

The Indian American Muslim Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, said one of its tweets was caught up in the takedowns. It linked to a Vice report about tens of thousands of people taking a ritual bath together as part of the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious pilgrimage, as coronavirus cases mounted. The group criticized the government for focusing on tweets rather than saving lives. 

“Today hundreds of thousands of Indians belonging to all faiths are literally gasping for breath, afflicted by a virus that makes no distinction on the basis of religion or caste,” the council said in a news release. “In this horrifying scenario, the government’s alacrity in pressuring Twitter to block tweets critical of its handling of the crisis shows the administration’s moral compass continues to point in a direction that is shamelessly self-serving.”

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The Pentagon gave a Florida company control of hundreds of millions of its computer addresses to identify vulnerabilities and cyberthreats.

Global Resource Systems LLC gained control of almost 6 percent of coveted Internet addresses in the months since Joe Biden’s inauguration, Craig Timberg and Paul Sonne report. The Pentagon’s pilot program could uncover whether hackers are trying to hijack dormant IP addresses, they write.

The project is one of the Pentagon’s “many efforts focused on continually improving our cyber posture and defense in response to advanced persistent threats. We are partnering throughout DoD to ensure potential vulnerabilities are mitigated,” Brett Goldstein, director of the Pentagon unit that handed over the addresses, told my colleagues.

A person familiar with the project, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because the program isn’t public, said it’s critical for the Pentagon to have “visibility and transparency” into its IP addresses and other cyber resources. 

“If you can’t see it, you can’t defend it,” the person said.

The Supreme Court is preparing to hear a case about a cheerleader’s Snapchat rant.

High school cheerleader Brandi Levy’s expletive-laced “snap” after she didn’t make her school’s varsity squad was meant to be shared with 250 “friends,” Robert Barnes reports. But the school’s cheerleading coaches eventually learned of the post and decided to suspend her from the squad for year.

Now, her court case over the outburst and the adult reaction to it could determine how the First Amendment applies to the off-campus, online activities of millions of students.

“This is the most momentous case in more than five decades involving student speech,” said Justin Driver, a Yale law professor. “When I talk to school administrators, they consistently tell me that off-campus speech bedevils them, and the lower courts desperately need some guidance in this area.”

An opaque network of companies host and remove slander from the Internet.

The New York Times’s Aaron Krolik and Kashmir Hill used a website to slander Krolik and trace the path of defamatory content online. The post quickly proliferated and eventually appeared in prominent positions on search engines.

They discovered a web of companies that make hundreds of dollars to delete each of the posts, and uncovered that these reputation management companies are often the same as the ones that facilitate the slander. When asked about whether the work amounted to extortion, the owner of one of the companies, Heidi Glosser, said, “I can’t really give you a direct answer.”

Altogether, it would have cost Krolik about $20,000 to have the posts removed. Instead, he turned to Google, which allows users to request that such posts be removed from the search engine. That solution, however, is located under ads for the costly reputation-management companies.

Rant and rave

New York Times technology newsletter writer Shira Ovide:

Photographer Thomas Hawk:

Workforce report

Amazon and some technology start-ups are pushing to transition to in-person work.

They hope that a strong office culture will make them more attractive to the workforce, the Wall Street Journal’s Katherine Bindley reports. Other industries are looking to the tech industry more than a year into the pandemic as a potential indicator for how they should organize their ranks.

Meanwhile, tech giants such as Google and Microsoft have announced plans or pilots for hybrid work. Amazon’s recent announcement that it’s planning to return to an “office-centric” culture is being used by recruiters to poach its employees. An Amazon spokesman said the company is making the move because working in the office “enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.” (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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Daybook

  • Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) discusses a bill aiming to boost U.S. technological competition against China at a Washington Post Live event on Tuesday at 9:15 a.m.
  • Facebook, Twitter and YouTube executives testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee hearing on social media amplification and algorithms on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
  • Daniel Kaufman, the acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, testifies at a Senate Commerce Committee panel’s hearing on coronavirus-related scams and identity theft on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
  • A Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee panel holds a hearing on federal IT management on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
  • Federal Trade Commissioner Christine Wilson discusses digital markets at a NetChoice event on Tuesday at 1 p.m.
  • Google parent Alphabet and Microsoft hold earnings calls at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee holds a nomination hearing for Eric Lander, President Biden’s pick to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, on Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • Shira Perlmutter, the Register of Copyrights and Director of the U.S. Copyright Office, discusses the implications of a recent software-related Supreme Court decision at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on Thursday at 12:30 p.m.
  • Amazon and Twitter hold earnings calls at 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Thursday.

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