The High Court of Karnataka ordered issue of notice to the Central Government on a petition filed by micro-blogging platform Twitter challenging the legality of a series of ‘blocking orders’ issued by authorities under provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000, either to block Twitter accounts or identified content of the accounts.
On July 26, the petition came up for hearing before a bench of Justice Krishna S. Dixit, who adjourned further hearing till August 25 while allowing Twitter to submit, in a sealed cover, copies of the ‘blocking orders’, which are treated as confidential documents as per the law.
The designated officer of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) had issued several ‘blocking orders’ since February 2021 asking Twitter to block tweets or accounts.
Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Twitter, has said that the blocking orders are contrary to the right to freedom of expression and the entire business of the company will come to an end due to the nature of a blocking order.
The counsel for the Central Government said that the Solicitor General of India, who will argue on behalf of the government, is infected with COVID-19, and he requires at least 15 days to recover from the infection.
Hence, the bench adjourned the hearing while accepting August 25 as the date for hearing the petition, on Mr. Rohatgi’s request.
Why has Twitter gone to court in India
The petition was filed after the designated officer of the MeitY, following a series of meeting with the Compliance Officer of Twitter on the issues raised on correctness of several ‘blocking orders’, issued a notice on June 27, 2022 informing that penal action would be initiated against Twitter for not complying with the ‘blocking orders’.
Twitter, which has complied with the ‘blocking orders’ under protest, has contended in the petition that the ‘blocking orders’ are manifestly arbitrary, procedurally and substantially not in consonance with Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000. The ‘blocking orders’ are also contrary to the procedures and safeguards prescribed in the Information Technology (Procedures and Safeguards for Blocking of Access to Information by Public) Rules, 2009, the petitioner claims.
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In 34 cases, it has been claimed in the petition, Twitter was told to block the entire account even though Section 69A allows only blocking of ‘information’.
The authorities, since February 2021, have told Twitter to block 1,474 accounts and 175 tweets, it has been stated in the petition while contending that the ‘blocking orders’ are illegal as authorities have not issued notices to the originators of the accounts under Rule 8 (1) of the 2009 rules, and the ‘blocking orders’ do not conform to the ‘least intrusive test’ as recognised by the apex court.
“Several of the URLs (Uniform Resource Locator) contain political and journalistic content. Blocking of such information is gross violation of the freedom of speech guaranteed to citizen-user of platform of Twitter,” it has been claimed in the petition while pointing out that no proper reason is assigned in the ‘blocking orders’.
“A perusal of content available in the accounts of politicians, activists and journalists would show that authorities have not show how content disrupts public order, as contemplated in Section 69A of the Act,” it has been claimed in the petition.
What Section 69A of Information Technology Act states
Power to issue directions for blocking access to public of any information through any computer resource –
(1) Where the Central Government or any of its officers specially authorised by it in this behalf is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above, it may subject to the provisions of sub-section
(2) For reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct any agency of the government or intermediary to block for access by the public, or cause to be blocked for access by the public, any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource. The procedure and safeguards subject to which such blocking for access by the public may be carried out, shall be such as may be prescribed.
(3) The intermediary who fails to comply with the direction issued under sub-section (1) shall be punished with an imprisonment for a term, which may extend to seven years, and also be liable to a fine.