More Twitter accounts suspended in India amid free speech debate

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Twitter said on Wednesday that it has suspended a portion of Indian accounts after it was served with several separate blocking orders by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in the last 10 days related to massive farmer protests.

The social media company said in a statement that the accounts will continue to be accessible outside India. None of the suspended accounts belonged to journalists, news organizations, activists and politicians, as doing so “would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law,” the company said.

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The latest move comes after Twitter temporarily blocked hundreds of accounts, including those of news websites, activists and a prominent opposition parliamentarian last week. Online outrage ensued soon after, and the company subsequently restored access to these accounts, prompting the Indian government to serve it with a non-compliance notice.

The clampdown on Twitter accounts comes as thousands of farmers have hunkered down outside New Delhi for over two months in a strike against new agricultural laws they say will devastate their earnings. The government has said the laws will boost production through private investment. Critics say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has used the demonstrations to escalate a crackdown on free speech.

The largely peaceful rallies turned violent on Jan. 26 after a group of farmers veered from an agreed protest route and stormed New Delhi’s 17th century Red Fort. Hundreds of police and farmers were injured in clashes.

In an order to Twitter last week, the government identified a number of accounts they say used provocative hashtags to spread misinformation on the protests as well as incite violence. The government invoked an IT law under which it has the power to direct online intermediaries and internet service providers to block certain content without providing any explanation.

In its statement on Wednesday, Twitter said it has taken steps to “reduce the visibility of the hashtags containing harmful content” by preventing them from trending on the platform. It also said it has acted against over 500 accounts, including permanently suspending some of them, for violating Twitter’s rules.

“We will continue to maintain dialogue with the Indian government and respectfully engage with them,” the company said.

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