With additional reporting by Aarathi Ganesan
As the hearing on its writ petition continued in the Karnataka High Court today, Twitter argued that the Union government did not follow proper legal procedures while asking the social media platform to block certain accounts on its platforms. Twitter said that it is not against taking down content, but also reiterated that proper procedure should be followed.
Background: Twitter challenged 39 of the 1474 URLs that were asked to be blocked by the Central Government under Section 69A of the Information and Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act) in 10 different blocking orders. During the last hearing on September 8th, the one-Judge Bench of Justice Krishna J. Dixit permitted Twitter to file a rejoinder to the Indian government’s statement of objections to the original writ petition.
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Why it matters: In its writ petition filed in July, Twitter alleged that the 39 blocking orders in question threatened the free speech rights of the ‘citizen-users’ of its platform. While the Indian government rebutted all of Twitter’s allegations in its statement of objections filed in September, the petition itself marks a lone instance of a large intermediary taking on the government’s much critiqued use of Section 69A over the years.
The Indian government argued in its statement of objections that Twitter’s petition positions itself as an arbiter of permissible free speech online—which it cannot do, as this would lapse its safe harbour under Section 79 of the IT Act, 2000. The same concerns have been raised by intermediaries in response to the government’s proposed amendments to the IT Rules, 2021. The Indian government is yet to issue a stance on the matter as explicit as the argument listed in its response to the microblogging platform’s petition.
Section 69A allows the Indian government to block public access to information online in the interests of India’s sovereignty and integrity, defence, security, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order. Section 79 protects intermediaries from being held liable for unlawful third-party content hosted on their platform.
Government did not follow proper procedure: Appearing on behalf of Twitter, Senior Advocate Arvind Datar argued that Twitter only issued notices to the company and not the individuals whose tweets/accounts were to be blocked. Further, at least one of government’s directions asked Twitter to maintain confidentiality about the reasons for the blocking accounts, which prevented Twitter from even letting the user know why they are were being blocked.
Senior Advocate Datar agued that Twitter did not follow the procedure mentioned in Rule 8 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009.
On receipt of request under rule 6, the Designated Officer shall make all reasonable efforts to identify the person or intermediary who has hosted the information or part thereof as well as the computer resource on which such information or part thereof is being hosted and where he is able to identify such person or intermediary and the computer resource hosting the information or part thereof which have been requested to be blocked for public access, he shall issue a notice by way of letters or fax or e-mail signed with electronic signatures to such person or intermediary in control of such computer resource to appear and submit their reply and clarifications, if any, before the committee referred to in rule 7, at a specified date and time, which shall not be less than forty-eight hours from the time of receipt of such notice by such person or intermediary. – Rule 8 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009
Can’t block entire accounts under section 69A: Twitter argued that they were asked to block entire accounts instead of just specific tweets, which would prevent users from accessing Twitter again. It argued that blocking should be Tweet-specific and subject to considerations like whether a person is a repeat offender or not. Otherwise it will “violate the law of proportionality”.
Tweets under question:
Twitter’s Counsel read out some of the tweets that were flagged by the Centre:
- Hindu youth donates blood to save mom of Muslim Jawan posted in Jammu and Kashmir
- I love my country, I’m ashamed of my government
The tweets mentioned above are based on what was mentioned in the hearing. The actual wording of the tweet may differ.
Central government’s argument
In its written response, the Union Government had argued that platforms like Twitter are being used by anti-India elements and foreign adversaries for anti-India propaganda, Bar and Bench reported on September 2 this year. The Central Government also said their directions were issued in national and public interest and to prevent incidents of lynching and mob violence.
The story was updated on September 27, 2022 (1:40 p.m.), to include the section “Tweets under question”.
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