On the 1st of February 2021, several prominent individuals, organizations, and news platforms that gave timely updates of the farmer protest witnessed a clash with the central government. It so happened that Twitter temporarily suspended about 250 accounts related to the ongoing farmers’ protests on Delhi’s borders. This order to block these accounts came through the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. As a response to the legal request by the IT Ministry, Twitter suspended these accounts under their Country Withheld Content Policy.
Among the multitude of accounts suspended, the prominent one was Kisan Ekta Morcha, a farm organization associated with Sanyukt Kisan Morcha which is the pivotal group leading the farmers’ protest. Others included the Tractor2 Twitter and the account of Caravan India magazine
Times of India reported, Baljit Singh, head of Samyukt Morcha IT cell named Kisan Ekta said, "Every day in the morning we were giving a hashtag for Twitter users to use that hashtag.” He further added, “It used to get tens of thousands of posts in only a few hours from India and many other countries and the point used to get viral Going by it Twitter on Monday suspended our account and many other accounts. It has been done under the directions of the government”
However, that same evening, Twitter restored these accounts and claimed that after scrutinization, it discovered the newsworthy content belonged on the lines of free speech. Soon after Twitter unblocked these accounts the matter got more intense.
Two days later, on February 3rd, the government sent out a notice to Twitter for not adhering to its orders. It said that the social media platform is violating the Information Technology Act’s Section 69 which has a punishment for seven years. It stated that unblocking the accounts and posts that talked about the protests was a breach of this law.
Further, as the events proceeded on Feb 8th, the government asked Twitter to remove a further of 1,178 accounts, claiming that these were Pakistani accounts commenting on the farmers’ protests and that they could cause a threat to public order. In response, Twitter said that the company had decided to meet with the Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad for a formal discussion on the issue.
However, fearing the repercussions of Section 69A of the IT Act that could lead to the arrest of the top executives of Twitter along with a financial penalty, Twitter stated that it was amending the restrictions on some accounts in India which were marked by the government as “inflammatory”
The company also stated in a blog post: “Separate to our enforcement under the Twitter Rules, over the course of the last 10 days, Twitter has been served with several separate blocking orders by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), Government of India, under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. Out of these, two were emergency blocking orders that we temporarily complied with but subsequently restored access to the content in a manner that we believe was consistent with Indian law. After we communicated this to MeitY, we were served with a non-compliance notice.”
In a thread on Twitter Safety, the company stated: “We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve and are exploring options under Indian law.”
The thread also had a tweet that stated: “We’ve made it clear, around the world, that we strongly believe that the Tweets must flow.”
In a response to the blog post, on the same day, the ministry issued this Tweet.
In the aftermath of these events on the next day, i.e. 11th Feb, the centre informed the parliament about the agenda to make social media platforms more accessible to the governments. Hence, it talked about amending the IT rules. This essentially implies that the government will have further scrutiny on public opinion.
In an Instagram video by the organization Internet Freedom Foundation, it outlined how the common public is unaware of the exact orders issued to Twitter in relation to the account takedowns. Hence, in any case, the citizens will not have the exact knowledge to support the cause and condemn legally in relation to their accounts been taken down.
This kind of non-transparency is an impact on the Freedom of Speech and Judicial Remedies. It is also a breach of the two judgment orders of the supreme court namely Shreya Singhal and Anuradha Bhasin that guarantees the Right to information, and censorship by the agendas of transparency and proactive disclosure.
As a comment on these events Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, from the litigation counsel of Indian Freedom Foundation said, “What this means is Twitter is now taking obligations towards its Indian users more seriously and investing a considerable amount of time, energy, and resources into defending the rights of Indian users.”
She further talked about how the government is conveniently blocking all these accounts in the name of prevention of incitement of violence and public or public order disruptions. This is a threat to the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and the right to receive information. Devdutta, in the video mentions, that how these rights guaranteed by the constitution hold similar weightage to international human rights like the ICCPR which has been ratified by India.
Thus, this draws a clear picture that based on the publicly available information, the blocking requests made by the government seem quite vague and lacks the clarity behind it. It also raises uncertainty about how freely can we address our opinion, in terms of personal and national issues.