Twitter’s legal challenge to Centre’s takedown orders flags issues of free speech

Source: This post is based on the article “Twitter’s legal challenge to Centre’s takedown orders flags issues of free speech” published in The Indian Express on 7th Jul 22.

Syllabus: GS2 – Govt policies and interventions

Relevance: Digital India, Free speech

News: As the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) conducts a week-long celebration to mark eight years of the Digital India program, Twitter has filed a writ petition in the Karnataka High Court against it.

It is representative of a Faustian bargain of digitization that promises financial and social benefits when we give up our civil and political rights.

Digital connectivity has increased manifold in India over the years. But, is mere connectivity enough to fulfill the democratic promises of the Constitution?

Why has Twitter gone to court?

Twitter has been prompted to go to court to protect the integrity of its platform, rather than in arrogant defiance against the laws of India.

As per parliamentary data, the number of such orders has risen from 471 in 2014 to 9,849 in 2020 representing a 1991 percent increase (Unstarred Question 1788).

What are the issues involved?

A comprehensive qualitative assessment of such orders is prevented by official secrecy. The need for disclosure emerges directly from a joint reading of the Shreya Singhal and Anuradha Bhasin judgments.

Through a voluntary mechanism, Twitter sporadically uploads the specific web addresses included in blocking orders to the Lumen Database, a project that houses legal complaints and requests for the removal of content. This is a transparency practice not followed by any other social media company operating in India.

From a citizens’ rights perspective, however, the need to rely on a voluntary mechanism is a cause for concern. It is also unsustainable, as it may eventually come under threat.

Another persisting issue has been the failure to provide a prior show-cause notice and opportunity to the actual users whose web content is blocked.

Take the case of Tanul Thakur, a journalist who in his free time made a satirical website to parody the social evil of dowry. His website was blocked without any notice provided to him, and the blocking order itself was never provided. Even after approaching the Delhi High Court, MEITY only provided the order to him and his lawyers.

Another instance is when Sushant Singh, an actor, author, and presenter, was blocked without any order being served on him. He had to approach the Bombay High Court for redress.

There are regulatory proposals to increase government control over the internet. In a recently concluded public consultation to amend the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 injuries to free expression and privacy are being reinforced.

A draft of the amendments proposes the appointment of a Grievance Appellate Committee (GAC) as a government body that would hear appeals against the decisions of social media platforms to remove or not remove content.

The draft amendments state that the GAC will be a government-appointed body, but do not state whether this body will grant a right of hearing to content creators or even publish its orders.

What are the concerns with GAC?

Firstly, the executive-constituted committee will make the central government (instead of, ideally, an independent judicial or a regulatory body) the arbiter of permissible speech on the internet.

It would incentivise social media platforms to suppress any speech that may not be palatable to the government, public officials, or those who can exert political pressure.

Secondly, it will empower the government to censor speech on grounds not stated under Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000 or Article 19(2) of the Constitution.

Hence, the government may even bypass the need to issue blocking orders, and instead, decide to crowdsource censorship.


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