NEW DELHI: The government on Wednesday warned Twitter to either follow its orders regarding removal of “inflammatory content” on farmers’ protests, or be ready to face jail and financial penalty.
The action, under the IT Act Section 69A (3), could result in up to seven years jail for senior Twitter India officials, and a financial penalty on the firm.
The government issued the ultimatum after Twitter refused to comply with its request to block 257 accounts that had used the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide. The company had initially “withheld” the accounts, but later unblocked them, citing “free speech” and “newsworthy” content.
The accounts which had allegedly used the ‘inflammatory’ hashtag included Kisan Ekta Morcha (@Kisanektamorcha), BKU Ekta Ugrahan (@Bkuektaugrahan), Caravan magazine (@thecaravanindia), CPM leader Mohammad Salim (@salimdotcomrade) and activist Hansraj Meena (@HansrajMeena).
An angry IT ministry, headed by Ravi Shankar Prasad, hit back on Wednesday, warning the company to comply with its instructions — which, it said, had been given keeping public order in mind and in order to diffuse tension and hatred.
“Twitter is an intermediary and they are obliged to obey directions of the government. Refusal to do so will invite penal action,” the IT ministry said in a notice sent to the company, according to sources. It added that “motivated campaigns” and the hashtag were being run to “abuse, inflame and create tension in society on unsubstantiated grounds”.
“Incitement to genocide is not freedom of speech; It is threat to law and order. Delhi had witnessed violence on Republic Day,” the notice said, while reiterating its request to block the accounts.
“Twitter cannot sit as an appellate authority over the satisfaction of the authorities about its potential impact on derailing public order. It cannot assume the role of court and justify non-compliance,” the notice said. It also quoted more than half a dozen Supreme Court judgments, “including of Constitutional benches” on what constitutes public order and the rights of authorities.
When contacted over phone, a spokesperson for Twitter refused to comment on the matter.
The government had originally requested the company to block 257 URLs and the disputed hashtag on January 31 under Section 69A of the IT Act, saying they were “spreading misinformation about protests and has the potential to lead to imminent violence affecting public order situation in the country”.
The notice further said that Twitter only blocked these accounts on the subsequent day (February 1, 2021) for a few minutes before it allowed them back on the grounds of freedom of speech as their advocate made a case before a government committee at 3pm.
“It is thus clear that the offending tweets/hashtag remained in public domain and must have been tweeted and re-tweeted several times at the risk and cost of public order and at the risk of incitement to the commission of offences,” the notice said, adding that it is in receipt of the company’s reply where it has “declined to abide and obey” the order.
The notice said that Section 69A of the IT Act provides jurisdiction to the government to direct an intermediary to block public access to any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource if the same is necessary or expedient in order to prevent incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to public order.
“It may be noted that as per the relevant provisions of Indian law, the intermediary is bound to comply with the order of the designated officer authorised by the Centre, and in case of non-compliance, statutory consequences shall follow,” it said.
With regard to Twitter citing right to freedom of speech, the notice said the company has “no constitutional, statutory or any legal basis whatsoever to comment upon the interplay of statutory provisions with constitutional principles or to unilaterally read down the scope of statutory provisions as per its own understanding of the constitutional and statutory laws of India”.