India, Nigeria and Turkey had threatened to shut Twitter down unless it complied with orders to restrict accounts, co-founder Jack Dorsey has alleged.
Dorsey, who quit as Twitter CEO in 2021, said on Monday that India threatened the company with a shutdown and raids on employees if it did not comply with government requests to take down posts and restrict accounts that were critical of the government over protests by farmers in 2020 and 2021.
“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.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has repeatedly denied engaging in online censorship and said on Tuesday that Dorsey’s assertions were 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,” Rajeev Chandrasekhar, junior minister for information technology, said in a post on Twitter.
Former Twitter CEO @Jack Dorsey in an interview to @esaagar @krystalball on Breaking Points talks about Worlds Largest Democracy,— Mohammed Zubair (@zoo_bear) June 12, 2023
“India for example, India is one of the country which had many requests around farmers protests, around particular journalists which were critical of… pic.twitter.com/unF6dVmv0O
The protests by farmers over agricultural reforms went on for a year and were among the biggest faced by the government of Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The farmers ended the protests in late 2021 after winning concessions.
“India is a country that had many requests of us around the farmers’ protest, around particular journalists that were critical of the government,” Dorsey said.
During the protests, the Indian government sought an “emergency blocking” of the “provocative” Twitter hashtag “#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide” and dozens of accounts.
Twitter initially complied but later restored most of the accounts, citing “insufficient justification” to continue the suspensions.
In subsequent weeks, Indian police visited a Twitter office as part of another inquiry linked to tagging of some governing party posts as manipulated. Twitter at the time said it was worried about staff safety.
Dorsey in his interview said many content takedown requests during the farmer protests were “around particular journalists that were critical of the government”.
Since Modi took office in 2014, India has slid from 140th in World Press Freedom Index to 161 this year, out of 180 countries, its lowest ranking ever.
Dorsey also alleged similar pressure from governments in Nigeria and Turkey, which had restricted the platform in their nations at different points over the years before lifting those bans.
In Nigeria, Twitter could not even put its employees on the ground in the country out of fear of what the government might do to them, Dorsey told Breaking Points.
Under Muhammadu Buhari, who was Nigeria’s president from May 2015 to May 2023, the country had a fractious relationship with Twitter which was often an outlet for youths, civil society and other dissidents disseminating information about human rights abuses by the government.
In June 2021, Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed claimed that Dorsey was responsible for the destruction of state property and loss of lives during protests against anti-police brutality in October 2020.
The official was referring to Dorsey’s tweet supporting protesters’ fundraising activities on Twitter.
Africa’s largest democracy suspended Twitter in 2021 after it removed a post from Buhari that threatened to punish regional secessionists. Authorities lifted the seven-month ban in January 2022 after Twitter reportedly agreed to open a local office, among other agreements with authorities.
“Twitter has agreed to act with a respectful acknowledgement of Nigerian laws and the national culture and history on which such legislation has been built,” Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi, director general of the National Information Technology Development Agency, said in a statement at the time.
But it remains unclear what the conditions were and if Twitter complied with them.
In April 2021, Twitter opened its Africa office in neighbouring Ghana, stating that the support for free speech and online freedoms there made its capital Accra a preferred location. Indeed one of the roles advertised for the new office was for a Nigeria-focused curator.
The office was eventually closed and the staff were let go after Elon Musk’s takeover.
Referring to Turkey, Dorsey told Breaking Points: “Turkey is very similar [to India], we had so many requests from Turkey. We fought Turkey in their courts and often won, but they threatened to shut us down constantly.”
There was no immediate reaction by Nigerian and Turkish officials.
Big Tech vs Modi
In India, where Modi and his ministers are prolific users of Twitter, free speech activists say the administration resorts to excessive censorship of content it thinks is critical of its working.
India maintains its content removal orders are aimed at protecting users and the sovereignty of the state. But rights and advocacy groups have raised concerns about human rights and free speech in the country.
Dorsey’s comments again put the spotlight on the struggles faced by foreign technology giants operating under Modi’s rule. His government has often criticised Google, Facebook and Twitter for not doing enough to tackle fake or “anti-India” content on their platforms, or for not complying with rules.
The former Twitter CEO’s comments drew widespread attention as it is unusual for global companies operating in India to publicly criticise the government.
Last year, Xiaomi in a court filing said India’s financial crime agency threatened its executives with “physical violence” and coercion, an allegation which the agency denied.
Twitter was bought by Musk in a $44bn deal last year.
Minister Chandrasekhar said Twitter under Dorsey and his team had repeatedly violated Indian law. He did not name Musk but added Twitter had been in compliance since June 2022.