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India says Dorsey claim it threatened Twitter shutdown a ‘lie’

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By Shilpa Jamkhandikar, Aditya Kalra and Kanishka Singh

NEW DELHI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -India threatened to shut down Twitter in the country unless it complied with orders to restrict accounts critical of the handling of farmer protests, its co-founder Jack Dorsey said, a charge Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government called a “lie”.

Dorsey, who quit as CEO in 2021, said on Monday that the Indian government had also threatened Twitter with raids on its staff if it did not comply with requests to take down certain posts.

“It manifested in ways such as: ‘We will shut Twitter down in India’, which is a very large market for us; ‘we will raid the homes of your employees’, which they did … And this is India, a democratic country,” Dorsey said in an interview with YouTube news show Breaking Points.

Dorsey cited no documentary evidence on YouTube and Reuters could not independently establish his specific claims. Dorsey could not be reached for further comment.

India’s Deputy Minister for Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a top ranking official in Modi’s government, called Dorsey’s assertions an “outright lie”.

“No one went to jail nor was Twitter ‘shut down’. Dorsey’s Twitter regime had a problem accepting the sovereignty of Indian law,” Chandrasekhar said in a post on Twitter. He did not elaborate further.

Twitter, which was bought by Elon Musk in a $44 billion deal last year, did not respond to a request for comment on Dorsey’s allegations or the Indian government’s response.

Chandrasekhar said Twitter under Dorsey and his team “were in repeated n (and) continuous violations of India law,” adding that at the time Twitter “had a problem removing misinformation from the platform in India”. Without naming Musk, the minister said that Twitter had been in compliance since June 2022.

Dorsey’s comments again put the spotlight on the struggles faced by foreign technology giants operating under Modi, whose government has often criticized Google, Facebook and Twitter for not doing enough to tackle what it calls fake or “anti-India” content on their platforms, or for not complying with rules.

The former Twitter CEO’s comments drew widespread attention in the Indian media and among politicians, as it is unusual for global business leaders or firms to publicly criticise Modi’s government.

Last year, Chinese smartphone giant Xiaomi said in a court filing that India’s financial crime agency threatened its executives with “physical violence” and coercion, an allegation which the agency denied.

Following the YouTube interview, several top Indian officials criticized Dorsey’s remarks and Twitter’s past handling of misinformation. But some opposition lawmakers accused the government of muzzling the voices of farmers during the 2020-2021 protest, one of the severest challenges Modi has faced.

Modi’s government eventually gave in and repealed the laws, which the protesters said were anti-farmer. It has maintained it ordered content take downs at the time to deter the spread of misinformation.

“It shows that everyone who dares to show the smallest bit of courage will be suppressed,” said Supriya Shrinate, a spokesperson for the main opposition Congress party.

The Modi administration has consistently denied suggestions by its critics that it has clamped down on free speech.

Twitter’s public spat with the government during 2021 saw Modi’s administration seeking an “emergency blocking” of the “provocative” Twitter hashtag “#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide” and dozens of accounts.

Twitter initially complied with the requests but later restored most of the accounts, citing “insufficient justification”, leading to threats of legal consequences.

In subsequent weeks, police visited a Twitter office as part of another probe linked to the tagging of some ruling party posts as manipulated media, a classification used by the company on “deceptively altered or fabricated” content. Twitter at the time said it was worried about staff safety.

Without sharing specifics, Dorsey also said in his YouTube interview that many Indian content take down requests during the farmer protests were “around particular journalists that were critical of the government”.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington, Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai and Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alexander Smith)

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