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'Leaves Things Unanswered': Experts on Karnataka HC Twitter Verdict

The High Court had dismissed Twitter's petition challenging blocking orders issued by the central government.

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"While the court tells us that it is okay for the government to ban an entire twitter handle in exceptional circumstances, it does not tell us what those exceptional circumstances might be for courts to determine in the future. It leaves a lot of things unsaid in the judgment."

These were the words of Advocate Abhinav Sekhri on the Karnataka High Court's recent judgment on Twitter. Sekhri was speaking at a public briefing call organised by the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a digital rights organisation, on Wednesday 19 July.

In 2022, Twitter had contended that 39 orders issued by the union government, aiming to restrict access to accounts and tweets, were in violation of the law.

Twitter argued that the government lacked the authority to block entire accounts and should only have the power to remove specific tweets. Furthermore, Twitter claimed that the orders lacked proper reasoning and failed to meet the government's criteria for content takedown.

But, the Karnataka High Court on 30 June, dismissed Twitter's petition and imposed a penalty of Rs. 50 lakh on the microblogging platform.

But experts have outlined concerns with the judgment. Here's more.

What Twitter Said

Twitter contended that 39 orders issued by the union government, aiming to restrict access to accounts and tweets, were in violation of the law.

Twitter argued that the government lacked the authority to block entire accounts and should only have the power to remove specific tweets. Furthermore, Twitter claimed that the orders lacked proper reasoning and failed to meet the government's criteria for content takedown.

Additionally, Twitter highlighted that the affected users whose accounts and tweets were being blocked had not been informed by the government. Conversely, the government asserted the legality of the orders, attributing the contested content to "anti-India campaigners."

It argued that if these users were informed about the actions taken against them, they might choose to tweet anonymously and cause further harm. Therefore, the government deemed it appropriate to inform only Twitter about these orders.

Due to the confidentiality requirement of the law, the specific accounts and tweets that were challenged remain undisclosed. However, one instance mentioned in the judgment revealed that at least one account had posted tweets concerning the farmer's protest in 2021 against the government's new farm laws.

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The Verdict

The Karnataka High Court dismissed the petition submitted by Twitter Inc, challenging the blocking orders issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeiTY) under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act.

Justice Krishna S Dixit, a single judge bench, not only dismissed the petition but also imposed a penalty of Rs. 50 lakh on the microblogging platform, citing its behavior. Twitter's request to suspend the order was also denied.

During the verdict, the bench stated, "Your client (Twitter) received notices but failed to comply... Non-compliance can lead to a punishment of seven years imprisonment and an unlimited fine. Despite this, your client did not show any reason for the significant delay in compliance, waiting over a year...and suddenly, they decide to comply and approach the Court. Your client is not a farmer but a billion-dollar company."

The court has now affirmed that the government possesses the authority to block not only tweets but also entire accounts. These blocking orders may remain in effect indefinitely. In emergency situations, the government can promptly block a website and provide notice later. The orders must also include written details explaining the rationale behind the decision to block a website.

Twitter argued that such details were missing from the government's orders. However, after examining the disputed tweets and accounts, the court determined that they contained "outrageous," "treacherous," and "anti-national" content that could pose a threat to national security and public order. The court confirmed that these details had been shared with Twitter. Furthermore, the court accepted the government's assertion that it had communicated detailed reasons to Twitter during review meetings held before the blocking order was issued.

The court further stated that issuing notice to users was discretionary in this case. The users in question were described as "terrorists" and "foreign adversaries" aiming to discredit and destabilise India, jeopardising national security along communal lines. Consequently, the court supported the government's argument that it was "undesirable" to provide notice to such "anti-India" campaigners.

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'Disproportionate, Free Speech Concerns'

"Blocking an entire account wholesale is not only unfair and extreme but also violates a user's right to freedom of speech and expression, as protected by Article 19(1)(a). This action assumes that the user's future speech would also violate the specific criteria outlined in Section 69A of the IT Act, thereby silencing the user completely," Radhika Roy, a lawyer associated with the IFF, had said.

"Such an interpretation disregards the principles of proportionality, imposes prior restraint on speech, and creates a chilling effect that discourages users from posting anything due to the fear of losing account access," Roy added.

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Topics:   Twitter 

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