BJP’s Vinit Goenka has petitioned the Supreme Court seeking directions for the government to create a mechanism to check content and advertisements on Twitter, which are allegedly spreading “hatred amongst the communities, [are] seditious, instigative, separatist, hate filled, divisive, against the society at large and against the spirit of the Union of India”. Goenka, in his petition, argued that the absence of any such mechanism, allows Twitter and other social media platforms  to spread, circulate and amplify such advertisements and content.

The plea also sought KYC of all social media handles in the country, to make social media “safe and accountable and traceable”. It also calls for the vetting of the “logic and algorithms” that Twitter uses, by the Indian government for “screening” “anti India” tweets. Goenka’s petition has been filed by senior Advocate Ashwani Kumar Dubey. The Union of India, Law Ministry, Information and Broadcasting Ministry, and Twitter have been listed as respondents in the petition.

Arguments made in the petition

Need a law or mechanism to take action against ‘anti-India’ content on social media: Goenka filed a representation to the “concerned authority” to take action against Twitter for allegedly “anti-India” content, but the concerned authorities have taken no action so far. He has asked the court to direct the government bodies to make a law so that “action can be initiated against the breaking India messages under the garb of Article 19 of the Constitution of India, against the Respondent No.4 [Twitter], and their representatives in India, for willfully abetting and promoting Anti India tweets”. Dubey clarified to MediaNama that Goenka had made representations to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and Home Ministry in October 2019.

Separatists and terror organisations use Twitter to cause communal rifts, and Twitter promotes such content: Separatists are using Twitter to make calls for “breaking of India” and the platform has “abated the act” by accepting financial ratification and paid advertisement, Goenka has alleged. The recent riots that broke out in Delhi are an example of how fake videos and hate messages circulating on Twitter “helped communal strife”, as per the petition. Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a separatist organisation which has been banned by the Home Ministry, “continues to have an active presence on twitter espousing hatred, terrorism and sedition, criminal acts under our constitution”, he alleged and accused Twitter of “deliberately and knowingly” promoting content from SFJ “in order to create [a] rift in the society”. He continued that global terror organisations such as the ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Indian Mujahideen use Twitter and other social media platforms “to circular hate speeches because it helps them avoid detection”. “The aforesaid act shows that the [Twitter] is sympathetic to Terrorist groups”. When we asked about what kind of content was being referred to in the petition, Dubey said he had screenshots and will share them with us on Monday.

Such objectionable content is harmful for India’s international ‘image’: Such objectionable content, when circulated by paid or promoted advertisements, or by verified, non-verified, and fake handles becomes a “root cause of many divisions in society leading to riots, violence, disharmony in the society and challenges the sovereignty and integrity of the Union of India” the petition said. It also spoils India’s “image” in international forums and affects her international relations with other countries. “Such content also radicalizes people and act as recruitment engines for waging wars against Union of India,” Goenka alleges.

Not having a mechanism is allowing separatists to publish content on social media: The “inactivity” of the government by not having any “rule, circular, notification, mechanism” prohibiting Twitter from publishing such content is further aiding separatist organisations to create panic in “some sections of the society” Goenka said. He relied on the International Covenant of Civil and Personal Rights Act, which necessitates the state to prohibit allegedly seditious content, and cited a similar law passed in Germany, as an example for why India should come up with a mechanism to block such content.

Government should account for Twitter’s revenue from objectionable ads: Goenka, in the petition, also claimed to have raised objections to such content in front of Twitter’s India representative, questioning the “paid” “anti-India” advertisements. He alleged that such content has been re-tweeted by many other handles and has been “promoted” by Twitter in the form of advertisements. He alleged:

“The said contents amounts to waging a war against the Union of India and against the spirit of the sovereignty and integrity of India not only by the handle but also the platform and its representative [name redacted] by not acting against such tweets in spite of repeated information and request, as the platform collected advertisement fees and promoted it as a “Promoted tweet” for wider reach amongst audiences across the world thereby helping to garner anti India sentiments across the world.” — Vinit Goenka’s petition

The advertisement fees collected by Twitter for such “anti India” tweets, and promoted tweets should be “accounted for and [the] Government of India should levy fines about the same”, Goenka said in the petition.

Dubey explains the need for this petition

MediaNama asked Dubey about the need for such a petition in the first place, when there are rules already for dealing with objectionable content in place. For instance, Section 69 of the IT Act, 2000, empowers the central government, or any of its authorised officer, to direct an intermediary (such as Twitter) to block public access to information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource. The Constitution also places reasonable restrictions on free speech, where the state can restrict speech that is against the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. “We are calling for a mechanism from the government of india, the current rules don’t suffice to check for content that is seditious,” Dubey told us. 

“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you can say anything against India,” he said and added that the petition is challenging any content that goes against current laws including the Penal Code and cyberlaws. The government or the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, in particular, should frame clear guidelines prohibiting such speech, similar to how the IT Ministry came out with guidelines to prohibit misleading or false information against COVID-19.

“Twitter and other social media platforms take down some content when it is reported to them, but we are calling for a mechanism from the government,” he added. We asked him if content against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act also fell under the purview of the petition given that it was speech being made against an Indian law, Dubey denied and said that protests are a fundamental right.

The need for social media KYC, according to Dubey

The rationale behind asking for KYC of social media handles, Dubey explained, is to ensure that there are no fake accounts on platforms such as Twitter. Twitter should have data on every single individual in the country and should be able to assist law enforcement agencies in identifying people who post such objectionable content. “There are thousands of accounts in the name of Prime Minister and former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi. That shouldn’t be case, there should be only one handle for each person,” he told us.

(Please note that paragraphs b and k under Grounds in the petition incorrectly mention I&B Ministry and Union of India as Twitter. Dubey has acknowledged these “typographical” errors to MediaNama. Read a copy of the petition here.)