Twitter case verdict will indicate future of free speech in India

Ashraf Engineer

July 30, 2022


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

Twitter has sued the Indian government This is an escalation of its battle with the Narendra Modi government as the latter tries to control not just mainstream media but also social media. The case filed in the Karnataka High Court pushes back against a government order to remove some posts and block several accounts critical of it. This lawsuit is important because it is the first legal challenge from Twitter against tight content censorship laws passed last year giving the government oversight of social media platforms and empowering it to demand that accounts critical of it be suspended. The law included provisions for executives of social media platforms to face criminal penalties if they do not comply. This case goes well beyond company versus state; it is in fact a case about freedom of speech and its future in India, which is under Modi turning into an autocracy.


In June, Twitter revealed that the government had ordered it to block more than 80 accounts and tweets. This is in keeping with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s wide-ranging crackdown on dissent, which ranges from sedition cases against critics to demolition of protestors’ homes.

The Indian government’s approach to the internet has been schizophrenic, oscillating pendulum-like between interconnectedness and openness to making it the target of state control.

So, the government order covers even international organisations’ tweets on the state of democracy and internet freedom. It covers also human rights activists and journalists. All this under the cover of the Information Technology Act, which permits the government to censor speech in the name of public order, sovereignty and integrity.

Under the new IT Rules, social media companies have to name three representatives stationed in the country to act on censorship orders. If the companies don’t, their executives can be charged too.

The judiciary has a clear line of sight to India’s censorship regime and how it can be abused. The question is, will it act?

There is a battle for digital freedom playing out on the global stage, so the outcome of Twitter’s lawsuit in India will reverberate beyond our borders. As the world’s largest democracy, nowhere is this fight more crucial than in India.

On its part, the Modi regime has never been apologetic about its urge to curb freedom. Other than frequent internet shutdowns and demands for the takedown of certain posts, India chose to stay out of the Declaration for the Future of the Internet – an agreement that details a positive vision for the internet and which has been signed by more than 60 governments.

If the court rules in Twitter’s favour, it would set a precedent for the various cases against the constitutionality of the repressive IT regime. Indirectly, it would also bolster litigation efforts across the world against similar censorship.

Twitter’s lawsuit, therefore, must be seen as part of a broadening global battle between large technology firms and governments. For instance, Australia and the European Union have moved to limit the power of Google, Facebook and other companies over online speech. Other countries are trying to rein them in to stifle dissent and quash protests.

No country is more active on this front than China. You would imagine that India wants to be the exact opposite of the Chinese model of web censorship but the Modi regime has no qualms about issuing takedown orders, pushing India further and further away from an open internet. How does it do that? It threatens to strip platforms’ legal protection against user-generated content to suppress the accounts it is targeting.

India is essential to the growth of social media platforms, so they are always performing a juggling act. On the one hand, they need to keep the government in good humour so that they can continue to operate while on the other hand they have to protect free speech and dissent.

This isn’t the easiest thing to do when the government is trying to put up a fence around these platforms. Twitter has, over time, been ordered to remove posts related to suppression of civil liberties, public demonstrations, criticism of the way the government handled the COVID-19 pandemic… I could go on. Meanwhile, WhatsApp has been asked to make people’s private messages “traceable” – which has severe implications on privacy. The government is brazen – it’s stand is that the right to privacy is not absolute and must be subject to “reasonable restrictions”. What reasonable restrictions mean I don’t know, but the fact that the government thinks you and I don’t have the right to absolute privacy is scary.

Earlier, Twitter had beseeched the government to respect freedom of expression and said the law was being used “arbitrarily and disproportionately”. The government, of course, was unmoved.

I don’t think Twitter’s track record is stellar either. In February 2021, it permanently blocked more than 500 accounts and shifted a number of others from view within India after the government accused them of making inflammatory remarks about Modi.

Not long after, it labelled tweets by politicians from the BJP as “manipulated media” but didn’t block them the way it had other accounts. In return, Twitter’s offices were raided by the police – widely seen as an intimidatory tactic.

The government has not shied away from arresting individual users either. Recently, it arrested Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of India’s leading fact-checking website that has consistently called out BJP supporters for spreading misinformation. Zubair was arrested for sharing a still in 2018 from an old Hindi film. The government, laughably, said the image was causing communal disharmony. This, in turn, was based on a complaint by a Twitter account that had just a few followers and which magically vanished soon after. Fortunately, Zubair was set free by the courts but not before he underwent a long ordeal of custody.

It’s no wonder, then, that independent organisations from across the world are warning of rapidly declining press freedom in India and the government’s heavy-handed and authoritarian response to criticism.

Naturally, Twitter’s case will be closely monitored by other platforms such as Google, Facebook and even Netflix. All of them, as I said, wish to tap the large Indian market but are wary of government censorship. If Twitter loses the case, that tightrope walk will become even more tough.

So, Twitter’s lawsuit is being viewed as an indicator of whether the constitutionality of freedom of expression will hold in India and how much social media platforms can push back against government censorship.

India has an estimated 640 million internet users, twice the population of the US. India has the third-largest Twitter user base after the US and Japan—just over 30 million— and is the fastest growing of the three. So, investments in India are significant and it can’t afford to back out of the country now.

The judiciary, meanwhile, has not filled us with confidence. It has failed us on a variety of fronts, which I won’t get into here but I will point out that the Delhi High Court ruled in an earlier case that the government is “free to take any action” against Twitter for not complying with the new rules.

Twitter’s lawsuit is as much a test of India’s judiciary as anything else. As citizens, we look forward to the court ruling in favour of our right to free expression. As I indicated earlier, that has the potential to influence the way the world moves on online speech. After all, our online space is lively in no small part due to the Constitutional safeguards for freedom of expression.

It’s time for the judiciary to step up and protect our democracy’s most essential pillar.

What is your stand on this issue? How do you think we, as citizens, can push back against any move to stifle our voices? How do we protect our Constitutional rights? Let me know at

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