Monday, March 4, 2024

India: Twitter moves court against government’s blocking orders

Twitter has moved the Karnataka High Court on 5 July in an attempt to set aside multiple blocking orders of the Union government as well as to amend their directions to identify specific violative content rather than imposing an umbrella ban on individual accounts.

Responding to the development, Minister of State for Information and Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar stated that while all foreign intermediaries have the right to judicial review, they also have an obvious obligation to comply with Indian laws.

As per its transparency report for January to June 2021, India accounted for 11% of the overall legal requests received globally by the platform for moderating access to certain content.

Section 69 (A) of the IT Act, 2000 empowers the Union to issue blocking orders to social media intermediaries. Any appeal made by the government is sent to a review committee, which then issues these directions. Blocking orders issued under Section 69 (A) of the IT Act are usually confidential in nature. However, ‘confidentiality’ under Rule 16 of the IT Blocking Rules has been repeatedly criticized for being “unconstitutional” and is often attributed to be the cause for lack of transparency.

Twitter has said that the blocking orders were “procedurally and substantially” non-compliant with Section 69A of the Information Technology Act (IT Act). Twitter has alleged that the Union government doesn’t issue prior notices to users before taking down content posted by them. It says that MeitY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) has failed to demonstrate how some of the content it wants taken down falls under the purview of Section 69 (A).

As per an NDTV report on the filing of this case, Twitter has cited occurrences where tweets from official handles of opposition political parties have been sought to be taken down.

HiTwitter has also said that blocking orders are often not specific and do not provide convincing reasons. Section 69A warrants takedown orders “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offense relating to above.”

Twitter has alleged that the government’s actions are disproportionate, adding that section 69A does not extend to block entire accounts. “Section 69A allows the blocking of ‘information’ and ‘information’ is defined in section 2(1)(v) of the IT Act. The ambit of Section 69A extends to blocking information that is already available and does not broaden to preventing information from being generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted. “The content in respect of which the present challenge is filed, falls squarely with the freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, 1950. Several of the URLs contain political and journalistic content…,” it said in the petition. 

The decision by Twitter to move court against the government unfurls the possibility of a new phase in India’s continuing battle for the protection of civil liberties. Non-compliance with a blocking order can lead to punishment of up to seven years in jail and monetary penalties. While compliance is the easiest path for any company, Twitter clearly also realizes that it is a platform for political dialogue and argumentation. 

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