Twitter’s Lawsuit against Indian Government Raises Concerns about Free Speech
In a landmark legal battle, Twitter took the Indian government to court in July 2022 to challenge its content takedown orders. This move, unprecedented in the realm of social media, garnered praise from experts advocating for free speech rights. The Indian government’s orders to block specific accounts and tweets have long been criticized for their arbitrary and opaque nature.
However, the recent verdict by the Karnataka High Court dealt a blow to Twitter’s case. The court dismissed the lawsuit and imposed a fine of 5 million rupees ($61,000; £48,000) on the company for its non-compliance with the contested orders over a span of one year. With more than 24 million users in India, Twitter’s legal battle carries significant implications.
Digital rights experts express deep concern over the court’s decision. Radhika Roy, a lawyer and spokesperson for the digital rights organization Internet Freedom Foundation, criticizes the court for granting the state unchecked power to issue blocking orders that bypass essential procedural safeguards. Rather than countering the rampant misuse of laws to suppress unfavorable content on the internet, the court has inadvertently legitimized such practices.
Commentators now anxiously await Twitter’s next move. Will the social media giant comply with the content takedown orders or challenge the court’s judgement through an appeal?
It’s worth noting that Twitter’s lawsuit was filed under the company’s previous leadership. Under new owner Elon Musk, Twitter has shown a willingness to comply with takedown orders. Following a recent meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the United States, Musk emphasized that the company has no choice but to abide by local government laws to avoid the risk of being shut down.
The recent court verdict has raised serious concerns about the state of free speech in India, as the government has faced accusations of increasing censorship of online content in recent years. Federal minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar asserts that all foreign internet platforms must adhere to Indian laws.
In 2022 alone, India blocked 3,417 Twitter URLs, a sharp increase from the mere eight URLs blocked in 2014.
Twitter’s Case: Challenging Government Orders
Twitter’s case revolved around the argument that 39 orders from the federal government, instructing the company to block access to accounts and tweets, were contrary to the law. India’s information technology law grants the government the authority to block online content that poses a threat to national security, public order, or other specified concerns.
Twitter contended that the government lacks the power to block accounts, asserting that it can only target specific tweets. Additionally, it argued that the orders lacked proper reasoning and failed to meet the grounds required for content takedowns.
Furthermore, Twitter highlighted the government’s failure to notify users whose accounts and tweets were being blocked.
The government, on the other hand, defended the legality of its orders. It claimed that the contested content had been posted by “anti-India campaigners” and that notifying such users about the action could lead them to tweet anonymously and cause further harm.
Thus, the government argued that informing only Twitter about these orders was appropriate.
Due to the confidentiality requirements, it remains unclear which accounts and tweets were subject to challenge.
However, the judgement referenced one instance in which an account had posted tweets related to the 2021 farmer’s protest against new farm laws enacted by the government. This highlights the court’s recognition that the government possesses the power to block not just tweets but entire accounts as well.
These blocking orders could be enforced indefinitely, and users affected by the blocks are not necessarily entitled to notification.
According to the law, users or the hosting company, such as Twitter, must receive notice and have an opportunity to be heard in court before a blocking order is issued. In emergency cases, the government has the authority to immediately block a website and provide notice afterward.
The orders must also contain written details explaining the necessity of blocking a website. Twitter argued that the government’s orders lacked this required information.
However, the court reviewed the tweets and accounts in question and found them to contain “outrageous,” “treacherous and anti-national” content that could potentially threaten national security and public order. The court stated that these details had been shared with Twitter.
Moreover, the court accepted the government’s argument that detailed reasons had been provided to Twitter during review meetings that occurred before the blocking order was issued.
Implications and Concerns
Experts argue that this judgement severely limits users’ ability to defend their right to free speech. Sachin Dhawan, a program manager at the Centre for Communication Governance, points out that users will not have a chance to defend themselves before a blocking order is passed. Even after the order is enforced, they will remain unaware of the reasons behind the content takedown. Dhawan believes that this further obscures a process already shrouded in secrecy, undermining basic due processes such as providing notice and the opportunity for a hearing to aggrieved parties.
However, there is hope that a different outcome may arise from another significant case currently pending before the Delhi High Court. This case concerns the government’s blocking of a satirical dowry calculator website without notifying the website’s founder. In May of the previous year, the High Court directed the government to provide the founder with a copy of the order and grant a hearing. During the hearing, the ban was upheld, but the court is currently deliberating on whether the website’s blocking can be justified.
The fact that the founder was given a copy of the order by the court gives rise to hope, according to Radhika Roy of the Internet Freedom Foundation. However, the final verdict in this case is yet to be determined.