Twitter told the Karnataka High Court on Monday that the Centre had not just asked the microblogging platform to remove tweets but was asking them to block accounts altogether during the farmers’ protests in 2021.
Senior Advocate Arvind Datar, appearing for Twitter, asked the court, “If newspapers and media organisations could report on the farmers’ protests, why can’t Twitter accounts do the same?”
Datar told Justice Krishna S Dixit that 10 blocking orders were issued by the central government between February 2021 and the same month this year to block accounts during the farmers’ stir in and around Delhi. He emphasised that Section 69A (power to intercept electronic communication) of the Information Technology Act does not spell out mass blocking of accounts.
Twitter further said while Indian laws allow the blocking of tweets but to block entire accounts simply on the basis of political criticism may go against the heart of the freedom of speech and expression and the right to criticise the government.
The microblogging platform said 50-60 per cent of the tweets, which the government had asked them to block, were not harmful or offensive. “As a platform, we were affected by the Centre asking us to take down accounts without issuing notice to the alleged violators,” Twitter said.
Datar cited the Supreme Court’s “Shreya Singhal versus Union of India” order where the IT Act Blocking Rules were upheld and said it was mandatory to issue notice to intermediaries such as Twitter and hear them before blocking orders were passed.
“When you pass a blocking order, it affects the intermediary and the person. Since it prevents the platform from publishing information,” he said.
During the farmers’ protests, the Centre had issued ten blocking orders to Twitter and asked it to suspend several accounts. These orders were submitted to the High Court in sealed covers.
After this, Twitter challenged the account blocking orders saying it violated the rights of its users, which are guaranteed under the Constitution. “The orders in question are manifestly arbitrary, and procedurally and substantively not in consonance with Section 69A of the IT Act,” Twitter’s petition stated.
Twitter has challenged the blocking of only 39 URLs out of 1,474 accounts and 175 tweets.
The intermediary said in its plea that the blocking orders do not comply with the safeguards under the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (Blocking Rules).
On September 1, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) filed a 101-page statement of objection to Twitter’s petition.
Datar said the blocking orders issued by the MeitY were against the apex court judgement in the Singhal case as well as against the IT Act Blocking Rules.
Datar pointed out that all that Twitter was seeking was following procedure and issuing notices before blocking tweets. “Blocking the account instead of individual tweets was the cause of concern,” he said.
The court has asked Twitter to look at cases from other countries as well on this topic and file their submissions in the next hearing.
The next hearing is likely to be on October 17.