India and Twitter face off over content as officials flock to rival Koo

The Twitter App loads on an iPhone in this illustration photograph taken in Los Angeles, California, U.S., July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – U.S. social media giant Twitter locked horns with India on Wednesday saying a government order to remove some accounts was not consistent with Indian law while politicians urged followers to switch to rival local app Koo.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has ordered Twitter to remove more than 1,100 accounts and posts which it says are spreading misinformation about widespread protests by farmers against new agricultural laws.

In a blog post on Wednesday, Twitter said it did not fully comply with some requests as it believed they were not in line with Indian law.

“In keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians,” it said.

The move puts the company and its executives at the centre of a political firestorm. The government has threatened legal action which could result in fines or imprisonment for Twitter officials responsible for implementing government directives.

It also comes after Twitter’s top lobbyist in India, Mahima Kaul, resigned while the company scrambles to contain a growing public relations crisis.

Public opinion in one of Twitter’s key markets is split. Some lawyers say Twitter must comply or challenge the order in court while activists blame the government for using legal provisions to curb free speech.

India’s ministry of information technology said it was unusual for Twitter to publish its blog post ahead of a planned meeting between company executives and its most senior official on Wednesday, adding that it would issue a response later.

But in a sign of growing discontent with Twitter, the IT ministry, first posted its statement on Koo where it has just 41,000 followers, less than a 10th of its Twitter following.

I’M ON KOO!

Following the government orders, Twitter permanently suspended over 500 accounts it said were engaging in platform manipulation and spam. For many others, it only restricted access within India and their tweets can still be read abroad.

For Twitter, the stakes are high in a country of 1.3 billion where it has millions of users and is ardently used by Modi, his cabinet ministers and other leaders to communicate with the public. Twitter does not publish the number of Indian users.

As the row takes a toll on Twitter, many Indian politicians and users are joining the home-grown Twitter-like social media platform Koo launched last year.

#kooapp was the top Twitter trend in India on Wednesday with nearly 21,000 posts, followed by #BanTwitter.

Twitter declined to comment about some of its users migrating to Koo.

Several people on Twitter, including Trade Minister Piyush Goyal, have posted tweets this week saying “I am now on Koo”. Goyal, who has 9.6 million Twitter followers, has a pinned tweet asking people to connect with him on Indian platform.

Sambit Patra, a national spokesman for Modi’s ruling party, and its head of IT Amit Malviya also joined Koo on Wednesday.

Koo, which has a yellow bird as its logo, said downloads have surged 10-fold in the past two days to over 3 million.

“The last 48 hours has seen the largest number of sign-ups,” Koo’s co-founder Mayank Bidawatka told Reuters. “I’ve slept for two hours in last few days.”

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