Representational Image. (File photo)
Representational Image. (File photo)

Govt puts Twitter on notice for unblocking 250 accounts, threatens prosecution

Twitter withheld from Indian users nearly 250 accounts that allegedly used a controversial hashtag after the government asked the social media company to block access “to prevent escalation of violence”
By Deeksha Bhardwaj, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON FEB 03, 2021 03:57 PM IST

The government has cited the unblocking of over 250 accounts and posts that talked about “farmer genocide” and issued a notice to Twitter saying the social media company was violating the Information Technology Act’s Section 69 that provides for seven-year imprisonment.

“This a is motivated campaign to abuse, inflame and create tension in society on unsubstantiated grounds. Incitement to Genocide is Not Freedom of Speech; It is Threat to Law & Order,” said the notice issued on Tuesday, a copy of which HT has seen.

The notice said the government has considered the submissions of Twitter but has found that it is necessary to take down the accounts in the public interest. “Having considered in totality, the contents of the interim order, the oral submissions of the advocate/representative of Twitter at the Committee meeting, and also the mail from Twitter expressing its disobedience of the legal blocking orders, the competent authority is satisfied that it is necessary and also expedient in the interest of public order and also for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to public order that Twitter, as an intermediary under section 2[1][w] of the act is once again directed to block for access by the public, the said Twitter handles and also the said hashtag with immediate effect...”

The notice added Twitter is bound by the Indian laws. “You are aware of the prevailing situation, which not only has the potential, but has in fact, resulted into a major public order issue [violence] on 26.01.2021 [during the farmer tractor rally on Republic Day]. The statutory authorities are doing everything possible to ensure that no adverse public order situation takes place and no cognizable offences are committed,” the notice said.

It added Twitter has no “constitutional, statutory or any legal basis whatsoever to comment upon the interplay of statutory provisions with constitutional principles or to unilaterally read down the scope of statutory provisions as per its own limited private understanding of the constitutional and statutory laws of India”.

The notice has also cited over half a dozen Supreme Court judgements including that of the constitutional bench as to what is public order and what are the rights of the authorities. “Twitter being an intermediary is obliged to obey the directions as per satisfaction of authorities as to which information content will arouse passion and impact public order,” the notice said.

HT reached out to Twitter for a comment but did not receive one immediately.

The government wrote to Twitter to take down posts and accounts that ran the controversial hashtag last week.

“This [unblocking] is a clear violation of the Indian law that Twitter is supposed to follow,” said an official. “The farmers’ protest has been going on for months, but the government did not block a single account earlier,” said a second official familiar with the matter. “If such a decision was taken, it would have factored in the consequences of running a hashtag that alludes to senior people in the government being involved in some sort of conspiracy.”

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Twitter temporarily withheld from Indian users nearly 250 accounts that allegedly used the controversial hashtag after the government asked the social media company to block access to the handles “to prevent an escalation of violence” in the backdrop of the farmers’ agitation, people familiar with the matter said on Monday.

The local ban was imposed in the morning. By evening, the accounts were restored, and Twitter said the content constituted free speech and was newsworthy. At least one of the handles restricted said it deleted a tweet that used the controversial hashtag.

Among the handles temporarily withdrawn was that of Kisan Ekta Morcha, a farm organisation linked to the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, which is an umbrella group leading the ongoing farmers’ protest on Delhi’s borders.

The action was also taken against Twitter accounts of media outlet Caravan, Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar, activist Hansraj Meena, former Lok Sabha member Mohammed Salim, and actor Sushant Singh, among others. All accounts were restored by evening.

The electronics and information technology ministry issued the directions under Section 69 (A) of the Information Technology Act after the Union home ministry stepped in. “The home ministry said that the tweets could lead to an adverse law and order situation. The accounts have been withheld to prevent an escalation of violence,” a government official familiar with the matter said.

The action was criticised by activists and free speech advocates, who said the temporary suspension of the accounts violated constitutional rights to freedom of speech. They alleged Twitter had different standards of moderation and complying with government orders in different countries.

Under Section 69 (A), the government can suspend accounts that pose a threat to public order.

“...Section 69A [3] provides for specific penal consequences in case of non-compliance of the directions issued under section 69 A of the Act,” the notice said.

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