NEW DELHI: Twitter said Wednesday it had blocked some accounts in India over comments on mass farmers' protests in New Delhi, but the social media giant refused to shut down others despite the threat of criminal action by the government.
Indian officials last week demanded that Twitter block hundreds of users that have tweeted on demonstrations against proposed new agriculture laws, saying they were a "grave threat to public order".
Twitter initially complied by blocking a number of accounts — including those of a prominent news magazine and farmer groups — but unblocked them several hours later, prompting threats of "penal action" from the government.
Farmers have camped on roads leading into the capital since late November as they call for the new laws to be repealed, in one of the biggest challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government since it came to power in 2014.
International celebrities including pop superstar Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg have even weighed in on the protests online, drawing the ire of the foreign ministry, which called their comments "sensationalist".
In a blog post, Twitter said it did "not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law".
"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," the San Francisco-headquartered company said.
"To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law."
But the firm nevertheless said several accounts had already been "permanently suspended", while some others had been blocked but only "within India".
The Electronics and IT ministry tweeted later Wednesday it would respond "soon", calling Twitter's blog post "unusual" and saying that it had come before a meeting with the government requested by the company.
The ministry later tweeted a link to its profile on rival Indian social network platform Koo. Some local personalities including Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal have opened Koo accounts.
Twitter's response comes as a tussle intensifies between India's authorities and social media services in the world's biggest democracy.
Members of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its supporters regularly brand their critics traitors, propagandists and "anti-nationals".
Senior BJP politicians on Wednesday, including the party's national general secretary B.L. Santhosh, tweeted that the platform "can't have your own rules" and had to follow Indian law.
Local media reported that New Delhi has accused Twitter of bias, saying its chief executive, Jack Dorsey, had liked tweets by celebrities supporting the farmer protests.
Digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa said New Delhi has been challenging social media companies on content it feels is "not in its interest or in the national interest" for many years.
He said the government frequently keeps its orders to block content, made under a section of the IT Act, under a "cloak of secrecy" and called for more transparency about why such decisions are taken.
"I'm very glad if Twitter is challenging the government if it believes that these orders are not lawful orders, because many times, companies tend not to challenge... because the government is so powerful," he told AFP.
Prime Minister Modi remains an active Twitter user with 65.5 million followers, the most of any world leader.
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