India-made Koo sees surge in users amid Centre's row with Twitter: A look at platform espoused by key Union ministers

Koo had won the AatmaNirbhar App Innovation Challenge held by the Government of India in August 2020, and boasts of the presence of key ministers including Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal, and former cricketers Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble, among others

An Indian version of the microblogging site Twitter is seemingly gaining popularity among Union ministers and the government departments, especially in the backdrop of a row with the US-based social media giant.

The app named Koo, boasts of the presence of key ministers including Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal, media companies like Republic Bharat, spiritual leader Jaggi Vasudev and former cricketers Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble, among others.

Among government departments, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, India Post and the Niti Aayog are also present on the app.

Who is behind the Koo app?

Koo, an Indian microblogging website, was developed by Aprameya Radhakrishna and Mayank Bidawatka in March 2020. It had won the AatmaNirbhar App Innovation Challenge held by the Government of India in August 2020.

The stated aim of the site is to provide a social media platform in Indian languages. An article in The Indian Express quotes Radhakrishna as saying, "We wanted to get the voice of Indian language speakers on the internet. Existing platforms focus on the 1 percent who speak in English."

Koo's parent company is Bombinate Technologies Private Limited, a Bangalore-based private company incorporated in 2015. As noted by Deccan Herald, Infosys co-founder TV Mohandas Pai recently joined the board of investors of the company.


How does the platform work?

Users on Koo can share posts, audio, video and photos on the platform. Like Twitter, Koo users can use hashtags, tag others using the @ symbol and chat with others over DMs. The character limit for a ‘Koo’ is 400, as opposed to Twitter's character limit of 280.

Koo is available for download on the Google Play Store and Apple App Store.

According to an article in MoneyControl, on Android, the app has received over 49,400 reviews and over a million downloads till Tuesday.

Parallels with shift to Mastodon

This is not the first time that a platform has sought to position itself as an alternative to Twitter. In 2019, an alternative social network called Mastodon suddenly got many new users from India. This had even prompted its founder Eugen Rochko to post a special message to welcoming new users.

Mastodon’s gain in Indian users at the time had come from the suspension of Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hedge’s Twitter account. After some of his tweets got reported, the micro-blogging site suspended his account. Following his suspension, Hegde joined Mastodon and said that he will be using the platform henceforth.

Mastodon is an open-source and distributed or federated social network, where anyone can host their own server.

However, most people didn’t really stick around to Mastodon and were back on Twitter, as noted by The Indian Express.

Controversy over Twitter

Twitter on Wednesday said it has withheld some of the accounts flagged by the Indian government for blocking "within India only", but has not blocked handles of civil society activists, politicians and media as "it would violate their fundamental right to free expression" guaranteed under the country's law.

Twitter emphasised that it will continue to advocate for the right of free expression of its users and that it is actively exploring options under Indian law both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted.

The microblogging platform had been asked by the Government of India to take down multiple accounts that were allegedly sharing misinformation and provocative content around the ongoing farmers' agitation. It had also been warned of penal action for non-compliance.

Seeking to clarify its stance, Twitter — in a blogpost — Wednesday said it had taken steps to reduce visibility of the hashtags containing harmful content that included prohibiting them from trending on Twitter and appearing as recommended Search terms.

Twitter has also informed the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) of its enforcement action.

Twitter noted that it has taken a range of enforcement actions against more than 500 accounts escalated across all MeitY orders — including permanent suspension in certain cases for violation of Twitter rules.

Separate to its enforcement under the Twitter Rules, the US-based company said it had been served with several separate blocking orders by MeitY under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act.

Out of these, two were emergency blocking orders that we temporarily complied with, but subsequently restored access to the content in a manner that we believe was consistent with Indian law, it said.

Twitter further pointed out that after this was communicated to MeitY, it was served with a non-compliance notice.

Twitter's blog post apparently did not go down well with the Central Government, which shared its response to it on Koo, instead of Twitter.

"Upon the request of Twitter seeking a meeting with the Govt., the Secretary IT was to engage with senior management of Twitter. In this light a blog post published prior to this engagement is unusual. Govt. will share its response soon," the ministry wrote on the Indian micro-blogging site.

The government, on 4 February, had ordered Twitter to block 1,178 accounts with links to Pakistan and Khalistan supporters that were allegedly spreading misinformation and provocative content on farmers' protest.

Previously, too, Twitter had been ordered to take down handles and hashtags that suggested a "farmer genocide" was being planned, saying such misinformation and inflammatory content will incite passion, and impact public order.

The government had also warned Twitter of penal action in case of failure to comply with its directive and had cited sections that provide for fine and jail for up to 7 years.

With inputs from PTI

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