Twitter said it has acknowledged receipt of the notice and sought a “formal dialogue” with the Indian government.
“The safety of our employees is a top priority for us at Twitter,” a company spokesperson told CNN Business. “We continue to be engaged with the Government of India from a position of respect,” the spokesperson added.
The Indian government did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Who will blink first?
With more than 700 million internet users, India is a huge and important market for global tech companies, albeit an increasingly precarious one as the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to tighten its grip on the internet and social media.
“The shrinking space for civil society is being mirrored by censorship and anti-democratic regulatory moves to censor users from their rights to free speech,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director at advocacy group Equality Labs. “It is time for the world to understand how much is at risk right now and for American companies like Twitter and Facebook to act before it’s too late.”
Twitter, for now, appears to be standing its ground against the Indian government by keeping the accounts active.
“We review every report we receive from the government as expeditiously as possible, and take appropriate action regarding such reports while making sure we hold firm to our fundamental values and commitment to protecting the public conversation,” the company spokesperson said. “We strongly believe that the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact, and that the tweets must continue to flow.”
But if the government chooses to make good on its threats or further escalate the situation, Twitter is left with few good options.
“There are two main risks: The first is to Twitter’s employees in India, who may be at risk if the company fails to comply with demands,” said Jillian York, Director of Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“The second risk is that Twitter continues to refuse and gets blocked in India. While this may be the right moral outcome, it’s obviously not the best outcome for the Indian people, many of whom rely on social media to get out key messages about what’s happening on the ground,” she added.
Threading the needle
While Twitter and the Indian government remain at an impasse with each other, both sides must also deal with external scrutiny.
“Jack has shown in the past that he can lead with his values,” said Soundararajan, referring to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
“The fundamental problem is consistency … are they able to do the same kind of contextual analysis that they did around QAnon posts, hydroxychloroquine posts and Trump’s incitement?” said David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine who previously served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. “India is a really great example of how hard that is.”
“I think there’s still a risk for Modi in particular of appearing to be unable to handle sort of fundamental democratic principles like the right to peaceful assembly, the right to protest, the right to criticize and so forth,” Kaye said. “I think it’ll be interesting to see if the Biden administration and other governments, who are friendly with India but are in the democratic camp, really encourage the government to take a different approach here.”
— CNN’s Manveena Suri and Esha Mitra contributed to this report.