The Central government has asked Twitter Inc for the second time in three days to block tweets with the hashtag ‘ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide’ and to block 257 URLs relating to the ongoing farmers protests as they are spreading misinformation and could lead to imminent violence affecting public order situation in the country.
In case of non-compliance with the directions issued by the Centre, the notice has warned Twitter of penal consequences under Section 69A of Information Technology Act indicating farmers protests hashtags.
As per this provision, an intermediary (Twitter in this case) who fails to comply with a direction issued under 69(1) shall be punished with imprisonment of up to seven years and fine.
“The hashtag has been found to be instigating people to commit cognizable offences in relation to public order and security of the State. Freedom of press cannot be taken as a pretense to disseminate information which may incite violence or affect public order,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) has told Twitter in a communication dated February 2, 2021 as per The Wire.
The Centre had earlier issued an interim order on January 31 asking Twitter to take down the relevant URLs and the hashtag relating farmers protests, but the same was not complied with until just before the Committee meeting held on February 1. On the same day, Twitter wrote back to MEITY declining to obey the order issued by the government.
The Centre has also taken objection to Twitter commenting upon issues related to freedom of speech and stated, “It is astonishing that Twitter despite being bound by statutory provisions validly enacted by the competent Legislature is commenting upon “significant issues relating to freedom of speech”, relating to power of Central government under Section 69A and the Constitutional desirability of interim order dated January 31,” stated TOI.
The notice has cited at least ten Supreme Court judgments on the scope of “public order”, press freedom and doctrine of proportionality for twitter to take down the URLs and hashtag relating to farmers protests.
The 18 page notice the IT ministry is sending to Twitter stated:
“The direction to block the hashtag ‘#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide’ … has been found to be instigating people to commit cognizable offences in relations to public order and security of the state. It may be noted that the impracticability or the disproportionality of the said measure cannot be decided (by) Twitter which is an intermediary bound by the orders of the Central Government. It may further be noted that the banning of the said hashtag is accompanied by the content that is attached to the said hashtag by the users using the same. Apart from the fact that the hashtag itself is provocative, the assertion of Twitter in its letter dated 1/2/2021 that praises, exaggerations, and crude emotional appeals do not constitute inflammatory speech in light of the judgements of the Honourable Supreme Court, is meritless, as the content attached to the said hashtag had been found to be directly falling afoul of Section 69A of the IT Act. In this regard, it is necessary to point out to the stated irrationality of Twitter conducting a purported constitutional balancing act in the absence of any legal mandate.
It is reiterated that the blocking committee had confirmed the earlier decision to block the URLs/hashtags. After the hearing was concluded on 1/2/2021 also, the interim order continued to remain in operation despite which you chose not to comply to the mandate of law and the order passed by the competent authority, legally endowed with the jurisdiction to pass the same. Instead you chose to send a communication attempting to give justification thereby not only admitting that you have not complied with the order, but also seeking to justify non-compliance.
Finally, it needs to be mentioned that 69A provided for specific consequences on case of non-compliance of directions issued under section 69A of the Act.”
Among the accounts that were suspended include those of Kisan Ekta Morcha and Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), The Caravan magazine, Prasar Bharti CEO Sashi Shekhar Vempati, Aam Aadmi Party MLA Jarnail Singh, CPI(M) leader Md Salim, activist Hansraj Meena, and actor Sushant Singh.
When the accounts were blocked, a Twitter spokesperson had said, “Many countries have laws that may apply to tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to people everywhere, if we receive a properly scoped request from an authorised entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time. Transparency is vital to protecting freedom of expression, so we have a notice policy for withheld content. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content, we will promptly notify the affected account holders (unless we are prohibited from doing so e.g. if we receive a court order under seal). We disclose these requests in our biannual Twitter Transparency Report.”