Today, the Karnataka High Court dismissed Twitter’s challenge against 39 of the Indian government’s allegedly overbearing content-blocking orders issued under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
The verdict brings to an end months of hearings on the constitutionality of government censorship on the Indian Internet. “I am convinced of the contentions of the respondent’s side [the Indian government] that they have powers to block not only tweets, but accounts also,” Justice Krishna S. Dixit observed today.
Justice Dixit also imposed exemplary costs of Rs. 50 lakh on Twitter, payable to the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority within 45 days.
Twitter had previously argued that the orders were substantively and procedurally non-compliant with the government’s procedures to block content online, harming the free speech rights of its user-citizens. For example, the government had asked for entire accounts to be blocked, as opposed to individual tweets. It further added that written reasons for blocking should be communicated with citizens beforehand, so they later have the opportunity to challenge the action in court, among other reasons.
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The judgment centres around eight questions framed by Justice Dixit (and separately raised by Twitter), of which the following were mentioned in court:
- Whether Twitter has the locus standi, or capacity to appear in court, as a foreign entity: Justice Dixit ruled in Twitter’s favour.
- Whether Section 69A powers can be used to block specific tweets or can extend to entire accounts too: ruling not specified during proceedings.
- The legitimacy of non-communication of reasons for blocking: Justice Dixit ruled against Twitter.
- No nexus between the reasons and grounds for Section 69A blockings: Justice Dixit ruled against Twitter.
- No opportunities of hearings/notice before the government to discuss blockings: Justice Dixit ruled against Twitter, adding that “you [Twitter] have participated in the proceedings, you have admitted this in your pleadings”.
- On proportionality, on whether blockings can be indefinite or period-specific: Justice Dixit ruled against Twitter.
Reproducing parts of the verdict in court, Justice Dixit noted:
“Your client [Twitter] was given notices [for content blocking] and two important notices were given to you [by the government] to comply with the blocking orders. Your client did not comply. The punishment for non-compliance [with Section 69A orders] is 7 years imprisonment and/or unlimited fine, but even that didn’t deter your client…You [Twitter] did not give any reasons for why it delayed compliance [with the orders] for over a year. All of a sudden you comply with the orders and knock at the doors of this court…You have also not given particulars of orders with which you have complied with on different days.”
The Indian government had previously rebutted that foreign entities like Twitter cannot file fundamental rights challenges in India as foreign companies. Further, it claimed to have followed all necessary steps in the laid-out blocking procedures. Critically, it argued that Twitter cannot act as a suo motu arbiter of free speech online, as doing so would compromise its status as an intermediary protected by India’s safe harbour laws. Remember, safe harbour protects platforms from being held liable for third-party content, as long as they comply with specific Indian laws.
Timeline of the hearings
- July 2022: Karnataka HC To Look At Merits Of Twitter’s Petition Against Blocking Orders Next Month
- September 2022: Twitter Vs. Government On Section 69A Orders: Next Hearing On September 26th, Says Karnataka HC
- September 2022: Indian Government Did Not Follow Procedure While Issuing Blocking Directions: Twitter To Karnataka HC
- October 2022: Indian Government’s Section 69A Orders Affect User And Intermediary Rights, Argues Twitter At Karnataka HC
- October 2022: Reasons For Blocking Under Section 69A Must Be Recorded And Communicated With Aggrieved: Twitter At The Karnataka HC
- December 2022: Karnataka HC Adjourns Hearing In Twitter-Government Standoff, Next Date January 9
- February 2023: Why Does The Indian Govt Think Twitter’s Challenge To Its Blocking Orders Lacks Bite?
- March 2023: “Foreign Body Corporate” Twitter Not Entitled To Free Speech Protections: Indian Govt At Karnataka HC
- April 2023: Twitter Argues For Its Right To Appear In Court Over Indian Govt’s Blocking Orders
- April 2023: Karnataka HC Reserves Orders In Twitter-Government Standoff Over Blocking Of 39 URLs Under Section 69A
Note: this piece was updated on 30/6/23 at 2:24 pm to correct a typographical error.
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- “Indian Laws Should Be Dictated By The Constitution”: Pranesh Prakash On Twitter’s Challenge To 39 Blocking Orders
- How Does A Section 69A Blocking Order Come Into Existence?