By Devidutta Tripathy and Satarupa Bhattacharjya
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Indian government faced an angry backlash from Twitter users on Thursday after ordering Internet service providers to block about 20 accounts that officials said had spread scare-mongering material that threatened national security.
The backlash came as New Delhi turned up the heat on Twitter, threatening "appropriate and suitable action" if it failed to remove the accounts as soon as possible. Several Indian newspapers said this could mean a total ban on access to Twitter in India but government officials would not confirm to Reuters that such a drastic step was being considered.
Twitter, which does not have an office in India, declined to comment. There are about 16 million Twitter users in the South Asian country.
The government has found itself on the defensive this week over what critics see as a clumsy clampdown on social media websites - including Google, YouTube and Facebook - that has raised questions about freedom of information in the world's largest democracy.
"Dear GOI (Government of India), Keep your Hands Off My Internet. Else face protest" tweeted one user, @Old_Monk60.
India blocked access to more than 300 Web pages after threatening mobile phone text messages and doctored website images fuelled rumors that Muslims, a large minority in the predominantly Hindu country, were planning revenge attacks for violence in the northeastern state of Assam, where 80 people have been killed and 300,000 have been displaced since July.
Fearing for their lives, tens of thousands of migrants fled Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities last week. The exodus highlighted underlying tensions in a country with a history of ethnic and religious violence.
According to documents obtained by Reuters, the government has targeted Indian journalists, Britain's Daily Telegraph, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Al Jazeera television in its clampdown on Internet postings it says could inflame communal tensions.
The directives to Internet service providers listed dozens of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter pages. A random sampling of the YouTube postings revealed genuine news footage spliced together with fear-mongering propaganda.
In Washington, the State Department urged New Delhi to balance its security push with respect for basic rights including freedom of speech.
"As the Indian government seeks to preserve security we are urging them also to take into account the importance of freedom of expression in the online world," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Nuland said Washington stood ready to consult with U.S. companies as they discuss the issue with the Indian government, although it was not now directly involved.
"The unique characteristics of the online environment need to be respected even as they work through whether there are things these companies can do to help calm the environment," she said.
INDIAN JOURNALISTS TARGETED
The government says Google and Facebook have largely cooperated while Twitter has been much slower to respond.
"Every company, whether it's an entertainment company, or a construction company, or a social media company, has to operate within the laws of the given country," said Sachin Pilot, minister of state in the Ministry of Communications.
Twitter has been instructed to remove 28 pages containing "objectionable content," an interior ministry official said.
"If they do not remove the pages, the Indian government will take appropriate and suitable action," he added.
The government has ordered Internet service providers to block the Twitter accounts of veteran journalist Kanchan Gupta and television anchor Shiv Aroor. Some appeared to have begun complying with the order on Thursday as Twitter users reported difficulties in accessing their pages.
"It is a political decision, because of my criticism of the government," said Gupta, who was an official in the previous government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The government's actions triggered a storm of criticism from Twitter users, with the hashtags #Emergency2012 and #GOIBlocks among the top trending topics on Twitter in India on Thursday. Some compared the situation with the state of emergency imposed by the government in 1975, when some journalists were jailed.
The Centre for Internet and Society, which analyzed the 300 banning orders, found that they contained "numerous mistakes and inconsistencies." Some of the banned websites belonged to people trying to debunk the rumors, for example, it said.
"This isn't about political censorship. This is about the government not knowing how to do online regulation properly," said CIS program manager Pranesh Prakash.
India's parliament last year passed a law that obliges Internet companies to remove a range of objectionable content when requested to do so, a move criticized at the time by rights groups and social media companies.
(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Annie Banerji and David Lalmalsawma and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by John Chalmers, Andrew Osborn, Gary Hill)