NEW DELHI — Twitter held firm when the Indian government demanded last week that the social media platform take down hundreds of accounts that criticized the government for its conduct during protests by angry farmers.
On Wednesday, under threat of prison for its local employees, Twitter relented.
The company, based in San Francisco, said it had permanently blocked over 500 accounts and moved an unspecified number of others from view within India after the government accused them of making inflammatory remarks about Narendra Modi, the country’s prime minister. Twitter said it had acted after the government issued a notice of noncompliance, a move that experts said could put the company’s local employees in danger of spending up to seven years in custody.
In a blog post published on Wednesday, Twitter said it was not taking any action on the accounts that belonged to media organizations, journalists, activists or politicians, saying it did not believe the orders to block them “are consistent with Indian law.” It also said it was exploring its options under local laws and had requested a meeting with a senior government official.
“We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter,” it said, “and strongly believe that the tweets should flow.”
The brewing conflict in India offers a particularly stark example of Twitter’s challenge in hewing to its self-proclaimed principles supporting free speech. The platform has been caught in an intensifying debate over the outsize role of social media in politics, and growing demand in many countries to tame that influence.
In the United States, Twitter was thrust into the center of the clash last month after it permanently suspended the account of Donald J. Trump, the former president, for encouraging protests in Washington, D.C., that turned violent. In that case, it exercised its right under U.S. laws that give social platforms the ability to police speech on their services.
But in India, Twitter is blocking accounts at the government’s demand. Controlled by Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the Indian government has become increasingly aggressive at stifling dissent. It has arrested activists and journalists, and pressured media organizations to hew to its line. It has also cut off mobile internet access in troubled areas.
Amid an intensifying rivalry with China, the Indian government has blocked a number of apps owned by Chinese companies, including TikTok, the short video-sharing network best known for its videos of dancing teens and tweens.
The government has also taken a tougher stance against its critics on social media. Under Indian law, Twitter’s India executives could face up to seven years in jail and a fine if the company fails to abide by government orders to remove content that it considers subversive or a threat to public order and national security.
The country’s judiciary has increasingly sided with the government, handing Mr. Modi a series of political victories, lawyers and human rights activists say. In November 2019, India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hindus in a decades-old dispute over a holy site in Ayodhya contested by Muslims. It also deferred lifting restrictions on the internet and movement in the contested Jammu and Kashmir region to a government-run committee.
Digital rights groups say the government’s pressure on Twitter amounts to censorship.
“The power used for banning smartphone apps is the same power that is being used to direct Twitter to take down accounts and order internet shutdowns,” said Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.
India is a potentially huge growth market for global internet companies, with its 1.3 billion people, broadening internet access and aspirational middle class. The government’s stronger hand in the business complicates the prospects.
The country ranks No. 5 in terms of requests for Twitter to remove content, according to a company transparency report, after Japan, Russia, South Korea and Turkey. The country sent nearly 5,500 legal demands, including court orders, to block content. It also sent around 5,900 requests for access to the personal information of users between January 2012 and June 2020.
That involvement came to the fore last year when a prominent public interest lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, wrote tweets criticizing the Indian Supreme Court’s role in eroding freedoms in the country. Twitter removed the tweets in question. Lawyers and digital rights advocates said at the time that the company had set a dangerous legal standard. Twitter said it had removed Mr. Bhushan’s tweets in accordance with legal directives.
India’s protesting farmers have opened a new front in the government’s efforts to tame social media.
Mr. Modi has been locked in a monthslong dispute with the country’s farmers over his government’s market-friendly farm laws. Farmers, many from the state of Punjab in the country’s northwest, have set up camp in areas around the capital, New Delhi. In late January, the protests turned violent after farmers entered the city — many on tractors — and in some places clashed with the police.
Last week, Mr. Modi’s government asked Twitter to remove over 1,000 additional accounts related to the protests. It alleged that many were run by overseas sympathizers of the Khalistan movement, an effort that had been more active in previous decades and that called for members of the Sikh religion to break away and form their own country. Some were backed by Pakistan, India’s archrival neighbor, the government alleged.
Twitter initially suspended some of the accounts last week, including the account of The Caravan, a narrative reporting magazine that has been closely covering the demonstrations. It subsequently reinstated the accounts after informing the government that it considered the contents to be acceptable free speech.
The Indian government’s conduct got global attention last week when the pop singer Rihanna retweeted an article about officials shutting off internet access to parts of New Delhi during the farmer protests there. Greta Thunberg, the environmental activist, also tweeted about the protests and shared a link to what she called a tool kit, which included talking points that supported the protesters as well as information about how to join with others with similar sentiment. Mr. Modi’s supporters seized on the link, saying it showed outside forces were supporting the farmers.
Also on Wednesday, the Indian government appeared to be demonstrating to Twitter that the company needs the country more than the other way around. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, the government arm that has been pressuring Twitter to take down material, posted its response to Twitter’s blog post on a competing service in India called Koo.
A virtual meeting between Twitter executives and government officials was underway on Wednesday evening.
Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, a lawyer who works on free-speech issues in India, said Twitter was walking a “delicate balance.”
“For the companies, it is a double bind,” Ms. Mukhopadhyay said. “They want their services to be available in the country, but they also don’t want to be complicit in censorship that doesn’t adhere to international human rights standards by virtue of being arbitrary or disproportionate.”
She said Twitter should push back and “use its clout to show the same amount of courage that it did when it blocked Donald Trump’s account.”
“They should not let it go just because it’s a developing country.”
Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.