The Government’s notice to Twitter after it reinstated several handles that mentioned a controversial hashtag, which the former wanted blocked, marks a critical point in an already uneasy relationship between a powerful government and an influential technology platform. A
showdown seems inevitable now, what with the Government threatening Twitter with penal action for not complying with its orders. Government orders Twitter to Roll Back Tweets The issue pertains to tweets put out by some handles on the ongoing farmer protests as
also a hashtag that suggested that a farmer genocide was being planned.The Ministry of Electronics and IT ordered these handles (257 URLs and one hashtag) to be blocked on the grounds that they were spreading dangerous misinformation about the protests. Twitter initially complied with the order but then restored these tweets and handles, which included those of media houses. The Government’s initial order was issued under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, under which it can direct an intermediary to block any information for public access “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…” This is the same Section under which hundreds of Chinese apps have been banned in recent months. Shreya Singhal Judgment on Section 66A of IT Act .Though the use of Section 69A has been often criticised for the secrecy surrounding the process, it was upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmark Shreya Singhal vs Union of India (2015). The Court then was satisfied with the safeguards available. The technology platform’s stance may perhaps even lead to a legal challenge to the provisions of the Section. On the other hand, while there are many grounds on which this
Government’s handling of the farm protests can be criticised, including its hyper- sensitivity to any criticism, reflected in the FIRs filed against many journalists, it has to be unequivocally said that the hashtag that it wanted blocked was not merely distasteful but seriously problematic, and indefensible on the grounds of freedom of speech. In a very sensitive setting, one that at least at one point was simmering with the potential for large-scale violence, provocation of any kind is unacceptable. What further happens in this face-off will be of interest not just for the two parties but for the governments of the world as well as the platforms of the world. Section 69 of IT Act – Power to issue directions for interception or monitoring or decryption of any information through any computer resource Where the Central Government or a State Government or any of its officers specially authorised by the Central Government or the State Government, as the case may be, in this
behalf may, if satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, in the interest of the sovereignty or 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 or for investigation of any offence, it may subject to the provisions of sub- section (2), for reasons to be recorded in writing, by order, direct any agency of the appropriate .Government to intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource. (2) The procedure and safeguards subject to which such interception or monitoring or decryption may be carried out, shall be such as may be prescribed.
(3) The subscriber or intermediary or any person in-charge of the computer resource shall, when called upon by any agency referred to in sub-section (1), extend all facilities and technical assistance to– (a) provide access to or secure access to the computer resource generating,
transmitting, receiving or storing such information; or (b) intercept, monitor, or decrypt the information, as the case may be; or (c) provide information stored in computer resource. Section 69A – Power to issue directions for blocking for public access 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.
(2) 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 fine.
Why was Section 66 of IT Act declared unconstitutional?
The Supreme Court of India invalidated Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000 in its entirety. The Court held that the prohibition against the dissemination of information by means of a computer resource or a communication device intended to
cause annoyance, inconvenience or insult did not fall within any reasonable exceptions to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Court found that Section 66A is capable of limiting all forms of internet communications as it makes no distinction “between mere discussion or advocacy of a particular point of view, which may be annoying or inconvenient or grossly offensive to some and incitement by which such words lead to an imminent causal connection with public disorder, security of State etc. The Court further held that the law fails to establish a clear proximate relation to the protection of public order. According to the Court, the commission of an offense under Section 66A is complete by sending a message for the purpose of causing annoyance or insult. As a result, the law does not make distinction between mass dissemination and dissemination to only one person without requiring the message to have a clear tendency
of disrupting public order.