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Tensions escalated between Twitter and the government on Wednesday with the latter terming a Twitter blog post on free speech published earlier in the morning as “unusual".

The ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) expressed its discomfort with the Twitter blog post in a statement posted on Twitter as well as the Koo app, a local version of Twitter, which has become the new favourite of several ministers and government departments.

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In the blog post, Twitter released a detailed statement on the content removal requests by the government, stating that it has taken action against hundreds of accounts after MeitY issued a non-compliance notice threatening penal action. However, it asserted, none of the action was taken on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists and politicians.

“Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law," the blog post said.

Hours later, MeitY responded to the social media major’s blog post, calling it “unusual".

“Upon the request of Twitter seeking a meeting with the Govt., the Secretary IT was to engage with senior management of Twitter. In this light, a blog post published prior to this engagement is unusual. Govt. will share its response soon," MeitY said in its post.

In a late evening statement after the meeting with Twitter representatives, Meity said secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney has “expressed his deep disappointment to the Twitter leadership" about the way the social media firm “has unwillingly, grudgingly and with great delay complied with the substantial parts of the order."

“It is expected that responsible entities not only reaffirm but also remain committed to compliance to the law of land."

The note said top Twitter officials assured the government that the firm will follow local laws and rules and requested for better engagement between the government and Twitter’s global team.

The tussle between Twitter and the Centre started late last month when the micro-blogging platform unblocked 250 accounts that used a controversial hashtag referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and farmer genocide. The IT ministry had sent a list of 257 handles and tweets to be blocked, and while Twitter blocked them for a few hours, it soon unblocked them. An official at the social media company had then told Mint it had tilted in favour of free speech.

In all, Twitter has taken action against more than 1,000 accounts—500 as sought by the government and an equal number that were found by the company engaging in platform manipulation and spam.

The social media platform said it had taken steps to reduce the visibility of the hashtags containing harmful content, which included prohibiting them from trending on Twitter. It has also taken a range of enforcement actions—including permanent suspension in certain cases—against more than 500 accounts highlighted by MeitY orders for clear violations of Twitter’s rules. Separately, it has withheld a portion of the accounts (tweet, media or thread) identified in the blocking orders under its country withheld content policy in India only. These continue to be available outside of India.

“We informed MeitY of our enforcement actions today, February 10, 2021. We will continue to maintain dialogue with the Indian government and respectfully engage with them," Twitter said.

In the past 10 days, Twitter said it has been served several blocking orders by MeitY under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. Of these, two were emergency blocking orders that were temporarily complied with but subsequently restored in a manner that Twitter believed to be consistent with Indian law. After Twitter communicated this to MeitY, it was served with a non-compliance notice. “We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve. We are exploring options under Indian law — both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted. We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter, and strongly believe that the Tweets should flow," Twitter said.

Amber Sinha, executive director of Bengaluru-based think tank Centre for Internet and Society, called the entire process being shrouded in secrecy and said Section 69 of IT Act is opaque in terms of framework and regulations. “It makes it impossible for users to respond or question any action in anyway taken by the platform. There is no redressal and recourse mechanism for a user which he/she can use in court in case his/her account or content is taken down. Since all orders sent under this Act are supposed to be confidential, one doesn’t know on what basis content is being asked to removed or blocked," he said.

MeitY secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney.
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MeitY secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney.
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