India’s prime court docket tackles social media in free speech case

NEW DELHI (AP) – India’s Supreme Court on Friday asked the government and Twitter to respond to a petition seeking tighter regulation of content on social media platforms as part of a free speech debate.

The case comes during a growing stalemate between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government and Twitter after the company refused to fully comply with instructions to remove certain accounts that criticized the government’s handling of months of peasant protests.

Twitter said Wednesday it would not freeze accounts of news organizations, journalists, activists and politicians, citing its “principles of defense of protected language and freedom of expression”.

But Twitter only banned hundreds of accounts in India after the government identified those it says had spread misinformation and provocative content relating to farmers who opposed agricultural laws since November on the outskirts of New Delhi protest.

The petition was submitted by Vinit Goenka, a member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). His attorney told the court that there were hundreds of fake Twitter handles and Facebook accounts on behalf of eminent figures and dignitaries that tarnished the image of the Indian government.

Critics have accused the Modi government of using the massive demonstrations to escalate crackdown on free speech and the silence of opponents.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on feedback from the government and Twitter.

The petition comes against the backdrop of government efforts to further regulate online content. News broadcaster New Delhi Television said the government had drafted rules regulating social media, streaming and digital news content that included a code of ethics and a mechanism to report inappropriate content and request its removal. The proposed rules have not been published.

Twitter’s decision not to remove certain accounts worried the government on Thursday, warning the company that it “must respect” Indian laws, “regardless of Twitter’s own rules and guidelines.” The government has also served the company with a notice of violations, threatening its officials with a fine and a prison sentence of up to seven years for violating the regulation.

Information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in parliament on Thursday that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn must follow the Indian Constitution. He warned the social media websites of “strict measures” if they were “used to spread false news and incite violence”.

“We will continue to work for the right to freedom of expression on behalf of the people we serve,” Twitter said on Wednesday. “We are examining options under Indian law – for both Twitter and the affected accounts. We remain committed to the health of the conversation taking place on Twitter, and we firmly believe that the tweets should flow. “

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