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Tripura Police tells Twitter to remove tweets and block handles amid communal unrest

The legal notice to Twitter asking it to fork over IP addresses and mobile numbers of users has raised eyebrows.

Tripura Police has booked 68 Twitter users under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for allegedly spreading objectionable content about the recent violence in the northeastern State. The Police also sent a legal notice to Twitter asking the platform to block their accounts and remove their tweets on the recent clash and alleged attack upon mosques in the state. Since then, the tweets have been deleted.

In a notice issued under Section 91 of the CrPC on November 3, addressed to Jeremy Kessel, Senior Director of Global Legal Policy at Twitter, Tripura Police informed that cases were registered against the Twitter users for their tweets that allegedly had the “potential to flare communal tension in Tripura State between people of different religious communities, which may result in communal riots”. A copy of the notice was provided by the Internet Freedom Foundation, an Indian digital liberties organisation.

The West Agartala Police Station in the West Tripura district also asked Twitter for the following user details —

  • Registration details of the 68 account holders
  • Activity logs of the account since registration
  • List of IP addresses from which the user logged into the account
  • Mobile number added to the Twitter account
  • List of linked accounts associated with the account

News reports revealed that 34 other Twitter users have been booked under UAPA bringing the total number to 102. MediaNama was unable to independently verify the exact figure.

These Twitter takedown notices point to a clampdown on free speech on social media. Similar takedown notices have been sent by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in other situations. Police cases have been registered against Twitter users for similar reasons. For instance, in the Ghaziabad attack case, UP Police lodged FIRs against Twitter and others for posts on the matter.

Twitter accounts flagged by cops belong to journalists and activists

A look at the URLs provided by Tripura Police for removal of content shows that many of the users are journalists such as Mohammad Sartaj Alam, Shyam Meera Singh, and WJ Werleman. Former Aligarh Muslim University student politician Sharjeel Usmani’s account also figured in the list.

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Police cannot direct Twitter to block pages or accounts: IFF

The Internet Freedom Foundation in a representation to the West Agartala Police Station said that Section 91 of the CrPC does not empower the police to direct intermediaries such as Twitter to block content on the internet.

The limited purpose of Section 91 is to enable the production of a document necessary for an investigation or inquiry. The power to issue directions to block content on the internet is provided under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. According to that provision, a direction to block content on the internet may only be given by the Central Government while complying with the safeguards provided under Information Technology (Procedure and safeguards for blocking for access of information by public) Rules, 2009 — IFF representation

IFF also said that the notice was a violation of the Right to Privacy. “Details such as user registration details, browsing log details…may only be disclosed if the State demonstrates that it is lawful, necessary, proportionate and least restrictive to do so. The notice fails to do so,” IFF added.

IT Rules 2021 have provisions to disable content but…

The Information Technology Rules 2021 require social media intermediaries to:

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  • Disable content within 36 hours of government order: The rules also ask intermediaries to provide information for verification of identity or assist any government agency for crime prevention and investigations no later than 72 hours of receiving a lawful order. They also have to preserve records of disabled content for 180 days.
  • Proactively identify and take down content using automated tools
  • Publish periodic compliance reports

Which government agency can demand information? As per the IT Rules, the intermediary is required to “provide information under its control or possession, or assistance to the government agency which is lawfully authorised for investigative or protective or cyber security activities, for the purposes of verification of identity, or for the prevention, detection, investigation, or prosecution, of offences under any law for the time being in force, or for cyber security incidents.”

But neither the IT Rules nor the IT Rules FAQs clarify which government agencies can issue orders for information and assistance to intermediaries.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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