The Union government cannot block Twitter accounts without first issuing notices to the users and Twitter itself, the social media platform told the Karnataka High Court Monday, citing norms laid down by the Supreme Court and Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
The court was hearing a petition moved by Twitter against orders issued by the Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology to block 39 accounts in 2021.
Senior counsel Arvind Datar, appearing for Twitter, said that the government had issued blocking orders for innocuous messages too, an example being ‘Hindu youth donates blood to save mom of Muslim jawan posted in Jammu and Kashmir’.
The counsel argued that orders issued for blocking messages should be in accordance with section 69A of the IT Act and that blocking should be restricted to tweets and not the whole account unless there are repeated offences.
Datar said: “If the central government finds a tweet to be objectionable or offensive then there is a particular procedure to be followed and as per the Supreme Court decision in Shreya Singhal they have to give notice to me and to the person sending the message that this is objectionable and why it should not be taken down — reasons have to be recorded in writing.”
The counsel said when orders are issued to block tweets it must be stated as to how they have offended. “If law mandates a notice and if notice is not given it is prejudice caused to me,” the counsel said, arguing that notices must be sent to account holders and Twitter regarding the intention to block an account and the reasons behind the move.
“At the heart of article 19 (1) (a) (right to freedom of speech and expression) is the right to criticise. Freedom of speech allows for criticism of the government within the norms,” the counsel for Twitter said.
The Centre has argued in its written counter that Twitter being a foreign platform cannot seek the freedom of speech and other rights available to Indian citizens for the users of its platform.
The Centre has argued that the majority of the 69A blocking orders issued by it are related to national security and public order issues. “Examples of such content include anti-India, or seditious or any religious contents that have potential to incite violence and contents that affect communal harmony in the country eg. SFJ or Khalistan related content,” it has argued while asking the court to dismiss the plea filed by Twitter Inc.
Twitter approached the high court earlier this year with a plea to quash 10 orders issued in 2021 by the Centre to block 39 accounts or to restrict the orders to specific tweets which allegedly violate Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
The government has argued that Twitter Inc did not comply with many blocking orders until final notices were issued by the Centre to the company on June 27, 2022. “The petitioner Twitter claims to have complied with the directions and has filed the case. But Twitter has unblocked multiple user accounts that were earlier blocked on government directions under Section 69A (AtheistRepublic, sushant_says, SikhPA, cjwerleman, standwkashmir),” the Centre has stated in its counter arguments.
The Centre has stated “that it is pertinent to note that out of the 39 accounts that are challenged in this case, one of the accounts is (Account Name @savukku). On 16.03.2021 the Respondent No.1 had issued a blocking direction under Section 69 A against the account @savukku for “national security” related reasons. The petitioner did not comply with this direction till June 2022”.
“Only on the diligent follow up of the Respondent No 2 (designated officer at the Ministry of Electronics and IT – MEITY) and upon the issuance of show cause notice dated 27.06.2022 the petitioner for reasons best known to it suddenly complied with all the blocking directions and then has challenged blocking directions for specific set of 39 URLs,” says a counter statement filed by MEITY.
The government has argued that its aim is to ensure that “openness, safety, trust and accountability” of the Internet is protected since a “large number of Indians are using the internet and are dependent on the internet going forward”.
In the event of Twitter Inc being aggrieved by any government order it must “first comply” with the order and then seek its review with the Centre or approach the courts, if a user is aggrieved they can approach the state through the platform or approach a court for relief, the Centre has stated.
“Thus the show cause notice issued by the Respondent(s) is valid. If the petitioner fails to comply with the directions issued by the Government under Section 69A of IT Act, 2000, then the petitioner’s intermediary status is liable to be withdrawn,” the Centre said in its written reply to the Twitter petition.