In response to directives from the Indian Government, Twitter has over the last few days banned or deleted hundreds of accounts and posts from its service which the government deemed to be spreading “misinformation”. These posts refer to the mass farmers’ protests across India against recent agricultural reform acts which farmers believe will hurt their income. The hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide was among the content deemed to be false and inflammatory. Initially, Twitter did not remove all of the content which Narendra Modi’s administration directed them to remove, as much of the content did not breach Twitter rules or Indian Law. However, Twitter has since removed more content under further duress from the government.
Such arbitrary censorship by governments of legal speech which challenges or criticizes their actions is exactly what concerns free speech advocates who see social media censorship and hate speech laws as stepping stones towards more sweeping censorship powers. Considering how low Twitter’s standards are for removing content, it can be trusted that the content they initially refused to take down deserved to remain on their platform. Worryingly, many social media and online media companies have preemptively censored content in India in a bid to stave off government regulation. This is where the argument that private companies can do what they want falls short, the question should not be if they can censor but rather why they are censoring. The massive uptick in bans, shadow bans, suspensions and censorship on social media in the U.S. in recent years has undoubtedly been in response to pressure from politicians and threats to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which absolves online companies from legal liability for content posted by users on their platforms. If social media companies are preemptively censoring speech which they believe the government objects to, then they are essentially engaging in state-directed censorship.
In response to Donald Trump’s Twitter ban, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, criticized the arbitrary censorship powers which tech companies wield. She suggested that governments should regulate what should and should not be removed, as governments are accountable to the public in a way that private companies are not. India’s example shows that granting the government such regulatory powers may have more nefarious consequences than the current state of tech censorship. Any such regulation should include provisions similar to those proposed in Poland, which prohibit the removal of content that is not illegal, and grants users a legally enforced mechanism by which they can appeal content removal, suspensions, and bans.