Dr. Pradeep Mahapatra
Multi-national social media platform Twitter filed an appeal before the Karnataka High Court against the directions issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology for the removal of posts by users and blocking accounts in July 2022. After a year-long hearing, the court dismissed the appeal in June 2023. It is a notable chapter in the social media landscape in India.
Information Technology Act 2000 identifies the users as ‘publishers’ for their posts in platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp etc. They remain legally responsible for the published content. The social media service providers are accepted as the ‘intermediaries’ for such publications. The government can direct them to block objectionable posts under Section 69(A). In case of failure to carry out such directions, they will lose the legal status of ‘intermediaries’ and will be considered as the ‘publishers’ of the disputed contents. Thus they will be responsible to face legal challenges in such cases.
The government of India notified the ‘Information Technology Rules’ and ‘Digital Media Ethics Code’ in 2021. It emphasised that social media platforms need to immediately carry out directions for the removal of content. Twitter protested against directions issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in February 2022 for blocking 500 user accounts. Dispute also arose on activists’ tweets during the farmers’ protest against the central government in 2021. The ministry set a deadline for Twitter to carry out all of its directions before July 4, 2022. Twitter challenged the ministry’s directions through an appeal at the Karnataka High Court after compiling all the pending directions.
Twitter mainly submitted before the court that before removal of the content or blocking the account, it is reasonable to issue notice to the concerned users and consider their replies. Unilateral action by Twitter as per government directions will be arbitrary and curtail the freedom of users. However, dismissing the appeal by Twitter, Karnataka High Court ruled that it is mandatory for social media platforms to honour government directions. Section 69(A) of the Information Technology Act 2000 mentions that the government can direct for removal of online content in the interest of sovereignty, integrity and defence of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order.
It seems the decision of the Karnataka High Court put an end to the triangular dispute between the user’s post, the responsibilities of the intermediaries, and the powers of the government rolled on for a long time. It may add clearity to the forthcoming new information technology act under active consideration of the government. Spread of social media among consumers in our country is a result of penetration of smartphone use and decrease in data rates after a decade of its introduction in the international level. Though the government adopts careful moves for the implementation of regulations in the field, sheer huge number of users pose trouble now and then.
The prevailing laws of the land are strong enough to control the emerging trends in information technology. The regulatory mechanism provided in the Constitution of India relating to Article 19(2), Press and Registration of Books Act 1867, Defamation, Official Secrets Act, and Contempt of Court lay down basic principles for the regulation of the flow of communication in various platforms. The laws enacted during British rule are strong enough and the people of the country are accustomed to such regulatory mechanism that ensures the rule of law in the country.
Five years after the public introduction of the Internet, Information Technology Act 2000 come into force and no new major laws followed it except periodic notification of amended rules. The government brought Information Technology Rules 2021 which made it mandatory for the intermediaries to remove social media posts within 36 hours of issue of government directions. Karnataka High Court’s rulings will further strengthen the time frame recommended for blocking social media content.
In contemporary times potential social media contents get ‘viral’, which means circulation from one users device to many users’ devices within a short period of time. Research findings denote that a short video gathers the strength to be viral for a period of 12 days only. Thus objectionable posts in social media need to be taken out immediately to prevent wider waves of circulation. Karnataka High Court has fined Rs 50 lakh to Twitter for unreasonable delay to carry out government directions to block objectionable twits.
Diverse opinions put arguments that Twitter is a United States-based company. It may not be entitled to the same freedom of speech and other fundamental rights enjoyed by Indian citizens. The government must frame separate provisions for foreign entities. The emerging regulatory framework in India emphasize on the three-tier system to protect the interest of social media users. In the first layer, as per the Information Technology Rules 2021, social media platforms with more than 50 lakh registered users will be considered as ‘significant social media intermediaries’ and appoint a resident grievance officer to look after content-related complaints. In the second layer, ‘self-regulatory organizations’ will entertain appeals against the decision of the grievance officers of member platforms. In the third layer, ‘grievance appellate committees’ formed with government representation will take up cases for final adjudication.
During the trial period of Twitter’s appeal at the Karnataka High Court, the ownership of the international tech company changed. The new owner has said that Twitter should obey the rules and regulations of host countries. In light of such developments the tussle between Twitter and government has come to an end.
(English translation of the original Odia newsletter by the author circulated on July 21, 2023. https://tinyletter.com/pradeepmahapatra/letters/message-311
It is an open-access content, free for translation and reproduction)
Dr. Pradeep Mahapatra is a retired faculty of Journalism, Berhampur University, Odisha.https://about.me/pradeepmahapatra
Lele, Sourabh. Karnataka HC verdict on Twitter to turn the tables for online platforms: Experts. Business Standard. (Bhubaneswar Edition). June 03, 2023.
Lele, Sourabh. MeitY may go for govt-backed GAC on social media content. Business Standard (Bhubaneswar Edition). August 11, 2022.