Isn’t it extremely ironic that one of the trending hashtags a few days back on Twitter itself was #BanTwitter? Considering that we Indians are an argumentative lot, Twitter is supposed to be a social media platform for intellectuals to voice their opinion on political and non-political matters!
The incumbent government had deftly used social media channels like Twitter to swing the sentiment in its favor during election time and while launching new development schemes. However, the same government wishes to Ban Twitter in India and instead promote homegrown apps like Koo & Tooter! What could be the reason behind this change of heart?
Over the last few years, the government has blocked full hashtags, whole Twitter accounts and has pulled down inflammatory content in order to maintain decorum, law & order, and protect the sovereignty and integrity of India. All this was done under section 69A of the IT Act, 2000. This Act allows the Centre to block public access to an intermediary “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offense relating to above”. According to the definition under Section 2(w) of the IT Act, an intermediary includes “telecom service providers, network service providers, internet service providers, web-hosting service providers, search engines, online payment sites, online auction sites, online marketplaces, cyber cafes, etc”. In fact, India was among the five countries last year which accounted for 96% of the global legal requests for removing content – Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Turkey were the others. And It was under this very section that nearly 59 Chinese apps including TikTok, WeChat, and PUBG virtual game were banned in Jun’20.
Pursuant to Section 69A, the center recently demanded the banning of some Twitter handles that were allegedly involved in spreading inflammatory hashtags like “farmer genocide” and supporting pro-Pakistan and pro-Khalistan agendas. However, within hours of complying with this order, the social media giant surprisingly went on to restore some of the accounts and tweets – claiming it violates the freedom of speech & expression. Matters worsened with tweets of pop star Rihanna and climate change activist Greta Thunberg and the farmer protests on 26th Jan’21 and especially when the ‘Toolkit’ was read out by Greta Thunberg. The sequence of events swung in such a way that Indian celebrities ranging from Bollywood actors and Cricketers up the ante against such a foreigner-led campaign. In a bid to silence the enraging global conversations, the news of Twitter being banned in India spread like wildfire!
Homegrown activists, lawyers, journalists, veterans are voicing their concerns in front of the courts and are forcing the judiciary to uphold the fundamental right of freedom of speech & expression. There are 2 important cases in the Indian Judiciary that warrant a mention in this context:
Case summary of Shreya Singhal versus Union of India, 2015 (Source: Columbia Global Freedom of Expression):
The Supreme Court of India invalidated Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000 in its entirety. The Petitioners argued that Section 66A was unconstitutionally vague and its intended protection against annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, or ill-will was beyond the scope of permissible restrictions under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. The Court agreed 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. It further found that because the provision failed to define terms, such as inconvenience or annoyance, “a very large amount of protected and innocent speech” could be curtailed, and hence its sweep was overly broad and vague.
Case summary of Bhasin versus Union of India, 2020 (Source: Columbia Global Freedom of Expression)
The Supreme Court of India ruled that an indefinite suspension of internet services would be illegal under Indian law and that orders for internet shutdown must satisfy the tests of necessity and proportionality. The case concerned the internet and movement restrictions imposed in the Jammu and Kashmir region in India on August 4, 2019, in the name of protecting public order. In the end, however, the Court did not lift the internet restrictions and instead, it directed the government to review the shutdown orders against the tests outlined in its judgment and lift those that were not necessary or did not have a temporal limit. The Court reiterated that freedom of expression online enjoyed Constitutional protection, but could be restricted in the name of national security. The Court held that though the Government was empowered to impose a complete internet shutdown, any order(s) imposing such restrictions had to be made public and was subject to judicial review.
The above cases emphasize that a balance needs to be sought between citizen’s rights and responsibilities enshrined under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
In a separate case, recently, Russia threatened to ban Twitter for 30 days if it failed to take the necessary steps to remove banned content from its platform. The microblogging site is facing serious backlash after thousands of people took to the streets protesting the arrest of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. The protest demanding the release of Navalny has been reported to be the largest in years and has posed tremendous challenges to the Russian Government.
Will Twitter be banned in India?
Twitter is a platform for the exchange of opinions and information that triggers global conversations. Indian society is accommodating with short-term memory. It will not be surprising if it quickly moves on to the next big thing for sharing thoughts. Also, bear in mind that Twitter isn’t exactly a revenue-generating model, unlike Facebook or Google. For example, in 2019 it made a net profit of Rs. 5.9 Crore in India. These amounts of money are peanuts for a global tech giant which in turn affects the scale of negotiations between the Government and the tech giant. There are four countries where Twitter is banned: China, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Iran. None of these countries are known for their democratic policies. So it quite unlikely that Twitter will be banned in India as the government is currently facing international criticism for quelling dissent during anti-CAA protests & internet blackouts in Kashmir. However, considering that India is Twitter’s third-largest market behind the U.S. and Japan and has more than 17 million users, it might be willing to bend over backwards as it might not want to forfeit the sheer potential volume of future users that India represents.