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The government has issued notice to Twitter, accusing it of unilaterally unblocking more than 250 accounts that had been suspended over the farmers’ agitation. An official at the social media company said it tilted in favour of free speech.

The ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY), in a notice issued late on Tuesday night, said Twitter had violated an order to block 257 accounts associated with the farmers’ agitation on the borders of Delhi.

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A senior government official said Twitter could face penal action for non-compliance of the order.

Twitter on Sunday temporarily blocked 257 accounts that had shared content criticizing the government over the farmers’ protest. Many of these had used the hashtag “ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide".

However, soon after, Twitter restored the accounts.

Videos and photos of the 26 January clashes between police and farmers were circulated widely on social media by hundreds of users.

Tuesday’s interim order was issued as Twitter URLs and hashtag were spreading misinformation about the farmer protests, the government said.

They had the “potential to lead to imminent violence affecting public order situation in the country", the ministry said in the notice.

“You are aware of the prevailing situation, which not only has the potential but has, in fact, resulted in a major public order issue on 26.01.2021. The statutory authorities are doing everything possible to ensure no adverse public order situation takes place and no cognizable offences are committed. In light of these developments and as a part of due process, and as per the settled practice, an order was passed," the notice said.

“The said order was communicated to you on 31-1-2021 at around 3pm. It is unfortunate that though the said order was communicated by us and received by you immediately, you chose not to comply with the same till almost the time fixed for the meeting of the committee as contemplated under Rule 9, i.e. 1.2.2021 at 3pm. The offending handles/hashtag was blocked only a few minutes before your advocate appeared before the committee, on 1.2.2021 at 3pm. It is thus clear that, the offending tweets/hashtag remained in public domain and must have been tweeted and re-tweeted several times at the risk and cost of public order and at the risk of incitement to the commission of offences."

The microblogging platform was “obliged" to obey the government order and refusal to do so can invite penal action, it said.

“Twitter cannot sit as an appellate authority over the satisfaction of the authorities about its potential impact on derailing public order. It is only an intermediary," it said.

Twitter declined to comment on the development.

People in the company said Twitter temporarily withheld these accounts under the ‘country withheld content’ policy in response to a valid legal request from MeitY. However, Twitter is learnt to have told government officials in subsequent meetings that the accounts and Tweets in question constitute free speech and are newsworthy. Therefore, these Tweets and accounts were unblocked.

Section 69A of the IT Act gives the government power to block information if it is deemed to pose a threat to public order.

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