Synopsis: The government’s use of is blocking powers under Section 69A of Information and Technology Act 2000 (I.T Act) attracted criticism. There is a need to reforms the blocking powers to ensure free speech in Indian democracy.
- Twitter suspended some user accounts based on Emergency restriction orders issued by Government under Section 69A. Govt. issued this order in wake of violence in farmer’s protest on 26th January in Delhi.
- The apparent reason behind such an order was the use of a controversial hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide. It could have disturbed the public order.
- However, later on, Twitter reactivated some of the accounts that didn’t violate Indian law. It attracted a sharp reaction from the Indian Government. A non-compliance order against Twitter and its employees was issued for violating Section 69A.
- At present, a temporary peace has been established, after a meeting between Twitter officials and the government.
Government’s power to block online users:
- Section 69A of I.T Act 2000:
- It empowers the government to order an intermediary for blocking access to any information in the digital world.
- The grounds for exercising the power are; threat to national security, public order, sovereignty and integrity of the country etc.
- A punishment up to 7 years can be imposed on intermediaries who don’t comply with the government’s blocking orders.
- Blocking Rules 2009:
- It tells the procedure which needs to be followed for blocking online content. As per these rules, the orders are subject to review by government committees. Further all orders and complaints should remain strictly confidential.
- Issues with Blocking Power:
- First, the government can issue restricting orders without any evidence. It undermines the Fundamental Right to free speech.
- Second, the confidentiality of orders makes it very difficult for users to challenge it in open courts. There is no requirement of giving any reason or hearing opportunity is a clear violation of due process.
- Third, These rules make censorship an easy and costless option. It places the burden of going to court and gathering the evidence on the user.
- Fourth, The framing of section 69A is in such a way that protection of online free speech mainly depends on the courage shown by intermediaries against government’s blocking orders.
- Reforms should take place in compliance with prior judgments of SC. In the Shreya Singhal case, the court allowed challenges to blocking orders in high courts. In the Kashmir Internet ban case, the court said any order restricting access to the internet should be put in the public domain.
- The government should block access to information only when an affected party is given a fair hearing in courts. Direct blocking should be permissible only in emergency situations.
- Blocking orders must be put in the public domain along with proper reasoning. The power of government to limit the flow of information needs to be rationalized.
At present the extent of free speech depends upon the capacity of multinational social-media platforms to face governments. Twitter managed to stand up against a clear case of overreach. However, other companies may not show similar courage, especially in cases of borderline overreach thereby threatening free speech. Thus, the demand to ensure free speech must come from citizens themselves.