Courts must safeguard common spaces online

Source: This post is based on the article “Courts must safeguard common spaces online” published in Livemint on 12th Jul 22.

Syllabus: GS2 – Polity – Fundamental Rights, Govt policies and interventions

Relevance: Freedom of speech and related issues

News: Recently, Twitter moved the Karnataka high court, asking it to overturn government orders to block tweets and handles.

Twitter has argued that the Centre’s demands are arbitrary and aimed at speech protected by Indian law; and complying with them would violate the right to free speech of its users.

Last year, WhatsApp went to court against internet rules that demand it to break end-to-end encryption, a challenge that’s still pending.

What is the Centre’s stance?

The Centre insists that foreign companies with operations in India must follow Indian law.

Under the Information Technology Rules, 2021, the chief compliance officer of a social media platform is criminally liable if it refuses official orders.

Is the demand for oversight of social media platforms justified?


Such platforms now constitute public spaces, but are owned by overseas corporate entities. Unlike democratic governments, they are not accountable to citizens, only their shareholders and regulators, but wield power over people’s minds.

Their opaque algorithms and role in enabling fake news have come under scrutiny. As decisions taken by closely-held foreign firms cannot always serve our collective interest, sovereign administrations are justified in pressing for oversight of these platforms.

What are some associated concerns?

The need to impose oversight on these platforms should not ignore the necessity to protect basic freedoms enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Hyper-vigilance and political overreach

An analysis by The Indian Express of Twitter’s global transparency reports shows that takedown demands in India soared 48,000% between 2014 and 2019.

The government stated in Parliament that content blocking orders to social media companies went up nearly 2,000% in that period.

Typically issued under Section 69(A) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, these orders often come wrapped in layers of secrecy; users aren’t informed or given prior notice, let alone an explanation of why their post was dropped.

The arrest of an AltNews co-founder for a tweet is but one among many examples of stiff action following a post, slogan or imaginary toolkit. While extant laws must apply, the limits of free speech need to be judiciously determined.

Way forward

The judiciary, as the guardian of our Constitution, must step in.

It must hold both social media and the government to democratic principles. Voices of dissent that don’t incite violence must be shielded.

Since what speech endangers lives can be a close call in some cases, the country needs to hear from judges rather than cops on what is broadly legitimate.

A massive chunk of our population now has an online life, with a stake in a free and open Digital India. People need clarity on liberties. It’s for the legal system to safeguard common spaces from violations of Article 19(1)(a).

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