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Behind Twitter's Tricky Balancing Act In India

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. Well, for more on this dilemma facing Twitter in India, we're going to turn now to NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So it sounds like the standoff is a really complicated situation for Twitter. What exactly is the company saying about all this?

BOND: Right. So Twitter is emphasizing, you know, it has complied with some of this order from the Indian government to block accounts, as Lauren reported. But Twitter also says that it won't take down other accounts of specifically journalists, activists and politicians. That's why it put back up The Caravan's account - because Twitter says that complying with the government ministry's order in those cases would actually violate Indian law and Twitter's own principles of free expression. So this is a really difficult balance, I think, that Twitter is trying to strike here. I think it's resisting being used as a tool of the government against critics. It's also worried about its employees in India, that they could face jail time. And of course, India is a huge, important market. Remember, Ailsa; many U.S. tech companies, like Twitter, Facebook, they're blocked in China. They see India as a big opportunity to get billions more people using their platforms. But they - we're just seeing how difficult it is to navigate these sort of competing pressures around the world.

CHANG: What do you mean by that? What are the competing pressures?

BOND: Well, I think we know - you know, we've seen over the last decade - social media is this powerful tool. It's given people who didn't have a lot of power a voice, a way to organize. But at the same time, it's also become an incredibly important platform for people in power. Think about Donald Trump, right? He had a huge Twitter following before Twitter banned him for breaking its rules against inciting violence and spreading false election fraud claims. And actually, now that Trump's banned, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi - he's now the world leader with the most Twitter followers.

CHANG: Oh.

BOND: And we are increasingly seeing governments - like Modi's in India, like in Turkey - that are putting pressure on Twitter to remove speech that they don't like, that the government doesn't like. And that puts Twitter in a difficult position. You know, what happens when free speech and human rights clashes with these local laws?

CHANG: Right. And we heard from Lauren Frayer that some people in India are saying Twitter is getting bullied by Modi's government but that Twitter was willing to stand up to Trump here in the U.S. And all of that raises the question, can Twitter have, like, a one-size-fits-all policy for every country? It doesn't sound like it can.

BOND: That's the exact dilemma, I think, Twitter is grappling with. And that's because it's basically become - you know, whether it's wanted to or not - this gatekeeper of public conversation. I spoke with David Kay. He's a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. He was the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression. Here's what he said.

DAVID KAY: How do we make sense of companies that have such enormous power that they can stand up to governments and serve as a kind of protector of rights, but at the same time, they have this massive impact that can undermine democratic institutions?

BOND: And what Kay says is, you know, look; a company like Twitter has so much control, sometimes it can feel like it's acting like a government. But it's not democratically elected. We don't have a lot of transparency, a good view into how it decides what to allow, what to take down. And I think whether you agree or disagree with Twitter about these decisions about Trump, about activists and journalists in India, there's a bigger question, which is, should Twitter have that kind of power at all?

CHANG: Right. OK, so what happens next with Twitter in India?

BOND: Well, the Indian government ministry still does want Twitter to take down these accounts. That standoff is continuing. Twitter says it's exploring its options under Indian law. There was a meeting between Twitter officials and the government last week. Didn't appear to get - make any progress. One potential outcome is maybe this could go to the Indian courts. The law professor, David Kay, I spoke with - he said that might be an appropriate way to decide whether this order is legal or if, as Twitter is arguing, it goes against Indian law.

CHANG: That is NPR's Shannon Bond.

Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAL MENERT SONG, "OUT OF THIS WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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