Arshad Shaikh studies the debate around anonymity and censorship in light of a lawsuit filed by Twitter against the government of India in the Karnataka High Court. Twitter has challenged the government’s order to pull down certain handles that the government feels are posting content inimical to the nation’s security interests. Since some of the accounts were anonymous, the issue of online anonymity and the right of the government to censor and curtail freedom of expression came to the fore. The international media is giving coverage to the case and calling it “crucial to the internet’s future”. As the matter is sub judice, the arguments of the contending parties should be examined to check their validity against the universal values of truth and justice. The issue is too important to be ignored.
Online censorship by the government comes in direct conflict with freedom of expression. Once freedom of speech is restricted and people are punished for voicing their opinion, a climate of fear and intimidation is created. People are afraid to speak out and this weakens democracy and strengthens authoritarianism.
The microblogging social media platform Twitter is one of the most influential and powerful mediums available to people to post short messages for their followers on a global scale. The enormous reach and power available to netizens to build public opinion through Twitter often makes it the target of authoritarian governments who see it as a forum for dissenting voicing to air anti-establishment views that escape censure and censorship.
This confrontation between Twitter and the government of India came to the fore when Twitter acknowledged that it blocked more than 80 accounts and tweets in June this year at the behest of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).
However, instead of silently complying with the orders of MeitY, Twitter challenged the order in the Karnataka High Court. It claims that the government has ordered it to block 1474 accounts and 175 tweets since February 2021. Twitter wants the HC to quash the blocking orders that it has received since 2021.
In a 100-page filing before the Karnataka High Court, Twitter argued that the government has not provided any suitable reasoning for censoring those accounts. MeitY simply mentioned that the tweet or the account was violating Section 69A and hence it should be pulled down. There was no explanation as to how the concerned section of the Information Technology Act 2000 was being violated.
Twitter explained that many of the URLs had political and journalistic content and hence censoring this information would violate the freedom of speech and expression that was assured to the users of the microblogging platform.
In its submission to the Karnataka HC, Twitter reminded the government that the Supreme Court of India has recognised that when it comes to fundamental rights, the state must adopt the “least intrusive” method whenever it resorts to any curbs for reasons of security and national interests.
Twitter was at a loss to understand how blocking entire accounts could be deemed “least intrusive” by the government. It cited the apex court’s opinion that objectionable content “should be judged from the point of view of strong-minded persons and not weak minds that scent danger in every hostile point of view” and that “popular perceptions, however strong cannot override values which the constitution embodies as guarantees of freedom.”
Twitter feels that Section 69A of the IT Act does not permit account-level blocking. The wording of the section is “69A power to issue directions for blocking for public access of any information through any computer resource.” It is meant to stop information that is already available and does not allow information from being created and stored.
In short, Twitter feels that blocking a tweet from being accessed by the public can at least be discussed; but blocking the entire Twitter handle is a bit of an overstretch and a misuse of the IT Act.
THE POSITION OF THE GOVERNMENT
The government is not amused with Twitter’s legal challenge and called it a “camouflaged petition” that seeks to achieve Twitter’s aim of hoisting objectionable content surreptitiously using the legal route.
The government affidavit states – “The petition is filed with a mala fide intention to avoid compliance and legal sanctions for non-compliance and to further exert pressure on the Government. The Petitioner’s intention is only to comply with its own policy and not be subject to the laws of the land. The Petitioner has not come to this Hon’ble Court with clean hands. It is habitually non-compliant, and under the garb of freedom of speech, the Petitioner expects the laws of the land will have to be changed to suit its own policies or made second to its policy.”
The government accused Twitter of hypocrisy saying that the social media giant had itself blocked and terminated several user accounts without serving any notice to their owners. So it’s holier than thou attitude to act as a custodian of free speech is not genuine and sincere.
The government says that the accounts under question have been pulled up through Section 69A because they have content that may potentially incite violence and pose danger to national security and public order.
The government’s affidavit also charges Twitter’s petition to be non-maintainable as it is a foreign company and has no locus standi when it comes to defending the fundamental rights of Indian users.
One of the issues that have come up with this duel between Twitter and the government is the question of online anonymity. The government’s position in the court that – “There is no fundamental right of anonymity under Part III of the Constitution. The only right guaranteed is the right to remain silent”, implies that anonymous Twitter unverified accounts, that cannot be traced like thousands of parody accounts or virtual handles that represent an idea or point of view, remain outside the ambit of freedom of expression. They are expendable and do not enjoy any legal protection.
While there is merit in the argument that a blanket acceptance of allowing anonymous sources of information to voice any opinion, may lead to serious law and order issues in our country, this unlimited freedom is the norm in western societies. Those societies have developed a high level of tolerance to dissenting and differing viewpoints and their index of outrage and dogmatism is extremely low.
The issue of permitting government censorship of online content negates the core principle of an open and free internet and strengthens digital authoritarianism. Again, the other side of the coin is the cost one is willing to bear for that freedom. Issues like national security and public order are of concern in the current debate over censorship. However, there is no discussion over content that is weakening the moral fibre of society like vulgarity, nudity, titillation, gossip, false accusation, slur, slander and other moral diseases.
Further, if the censorship is biased and prejudiced, acting only against a particular ideology or a social group or class; then it is tyranny and despotism must be opposed and challenged. As Charles de Montesquieu said, “There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.”