Twitter must apply its own policies transparently and consistently when suspending users’ accounts

tl;dr

Twitter unilaterally and arbitrarily suspended the account of Sushant Singh (@sushant_says) twice, i.e. on February 1 and May 26, 2021. The first time Twitter sent him an email saying the account had been restricted due to a specific tweet posted on the account, but for the second suspension, no information was or has been provided by Twitter to Mr. Singh. He decided to send a formal representation to Twitter highlighting issues with Twitter’s policies and actions, relating to transparency, free expression and consistency, and urged an open dialogue on its policy.

Background

On February 1, 2021, and May 26, 2021, Twitter temporarily, unilaterally and arbitrarily suspended the account of Sushant Singh (@sushant_says), an actor, author and presenter. The account (operated since September 2010) was verified on August 19, 2020 and has approximately 241.2K followers right now. Mr. Singh is an active voice against hatred, bigotry and fascism on Twitter and is also associated with another Twitter account, @TeamSaath, in the capacity of being their Goodwill Ambassador. This account is run by a team of volunteers who assist users in seeking redressal against hateful or offensive content that they come across on the platform.

In the first instance, on February 1, 2021, access to Mr. Singh’s account was withheld without any prior intimation or notice. It appeared that the restriction on access was global, and the page displayed a message that the account had been “withheld in India in response to a legal demand”. It was only sometime later that Twitter sent an email to Mr. Singh stating that access to the account had been restricted due to a specific tweet posted on the account. Mr. Singh deleted the tweet, and yet access to the account was  restored only after a lapse of at least 12 hours.  In the second instance, on May 26, 2021, the account @sushant_says was again not accessible, and those trying to view it from within India instead saw a message stating that it had been “withheld in India in response to a legal demand”. No communication from Twitter was received regarding this restriction, nor any information about the nature of any purported legal demands. Even though access to the account was restored a few hours later, Mr. Singh has still not received any information in relation to the account restrictions on May 26, 2021.

We assisted Sushant in drafting a letter to Twitter

Mr. Singh decided to issue a representation to Twitter on June 22, 2021 (the June 22 Letter), which we assisted in drafting. The June 22 Letter laid out the factual background of the account restrictions on @sushant_says, and noted that Mr. Singh’s experience, along with that of other users on the platform, suggests there are serious concerns regarding arbitrariness  in content regulation by Twitter Inc, amounting to private censorship of content. Despite Twitter’s expressed commitment to upholding the exercise of free speech and opposition to arbitrariness in content regulation, this experience confirms that the promises are hollow. Rather, Twitter appears to be actively depriving users of any meaningful participation in the process resulting in the takedown of content or suspension of accounts.

Twitter’s policy as per the terms of service on takedown of content only requires a post facto notification to affected users of any third party requests to withhold content. As per the policy, a notification includes “identification of specific content that has been reported or withheld and the origin of the request”. This approach fails to provide users with any meaningful opportunity to contest the request to takedown content and is evidently an insufficient means to secure a fair hearing in the matter. The policy is also insufficient as it does not require Twitter to communicate why content was found problematic, i.e., whether it was flagged as contrary to law/government order or contrary to policies of using the platform.

It is apparent that Twitter’s policy is applied inconsistently. As the case of Mr. Singh shows, in some cases the takedown process is not accompanied by any notice to users whatsoever. This demonstrates a larger trend of arbitrariness in the enforcement of Twitter’s own policies in respect of takedowns in the Indian context. Not only are takedowns being effected without any notice to users, but in many cases, the post facto notice is not as per the terms of service. It appears that no specific details are provided to users either about offending content or about the legal demand.

It is clear that Twitter’s decisions on content regulation lack consistency with its own terms of service and practice, thereby undermining the transparency sought to be upheld by the platform. The lack of adequate notice — both in terms of it being prior to takedown and being sufficiently detailed — besides being arbitrary, virtually amounts to a ‘shadow banning’ of content. Such practices lack precision in enabling a user to regulate his own conduct or to seek any legal remedies.

Accordingly, in the June 22 Letter, Mr. Singh urged Twitter to provide information in respect of the suspension of his account, @sushant_says on 01.02.2021 and 26.05.2021, respectively, including but not limited to the following:

  1. the basis of the takedown notice(s);
  2. if takedown was pursuant to a legal request from government/agencies under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, or any other legal provision, copies of the said legal requests and the objections/reply by Twitter through the process;
  3. if the takedown is pursuant to Twitter’s community guidelines and terms of service, details of specific provisions that are violated and reasons for the decision to regulate content;
  4. In any case, details of the offending tweets, duration of the suspension and reasons for restricting access to the account in entirety rather than blocking access to specific tweets.

We encourage an open discussion with Twitter

Takedown of the content may be necessary in various situations to comply with applicable laws as well as to ensure that the platform protects the interests of its diverse users. At the same time, it is equally necessary to ensure that users responsible for that content are treated fairly throughout this process, so as to prevent the chilling of free speech and expression on the platform. In regulating content, Twitter performs a very important function and it must accept the degree of accountability and transparency that arises out of this function.

In its public statements, Twitter has claimed that “transparency is the foundation to promoting healthy public conversation on Twitter”. Therefore, in the June 22 Letter, we and Mr. Singh called upon the company to stand by those beliefs and have an open dialogue on its policy of taking down content pursuant to legal requests or in cases of suo motu action on account of violations of community guidelines. This will enable standardising and improving practices regarding takedowns, as well as strengthening the faith of users in Twitter’s practices.

Important Documents:

  1. Sushant Singh’s letter to Twitter dated June 22, 2021 (link)
  2. Previous blogpost dated February 8, 2021 titled “Government censorship and the dire need for transparency” (link)
  3. Previous Blogpost dated May 10, 2021 titled ”MEITY responds to our representation to unblock Twitter accounts. Confirms orders and denies disclosure.“ (link)