“Law and order are the medicine of the body politic and when the body politic gets sick, medicine must be administered”
-Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
All of us, as citizens of the nation understand the very fact that the maintenance of public order is a must, for the smooth functioning of any democracy in the world. However, there are times when this democracy gets diseases from alien elements and challenge the very ethos of democracy and strive towards the destruction of the public order instilled in the very nature and the functioning of the democracy. Those are the times when the above quote by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar comes into practicality and then the medicine is administered to the ailing body politic or the democracy.
In relation to the above mentioned quote and the title of the article, the readers must have got a fair share of idea(s) about the subject-matter of the article. However, this article will take the readers to the other side of the ongoing fiasco between the Government of India and Twitter. The side, which isn’t talked about or is often labelled as an ‘authoritarian move’ by the government. Here, we will also talk about the legalities involved and how Twitter has been presenting itself in a wrong light step-by-step.
Let us start right from the roots of the fiasco. In the initial days of February, the Ministry of Information and Technology (MeitY) had issued directions to the micro-blogging platform, Twitter to block a certain number of accounts which includes that of some hashtags, some journalists and some activists. This is exactly the kind of news that has been circulated not just around the Twitter but other social media platforms too. However, there seems to be problem with some people around the world, we call it a human tendency when it comes to law and reading of laws and judgements prevailing in the countries. Under this tendency, an individual tends to read and circulate the information only to the extent which strengthens their argument and then very conveniently ‘forget’ to read the later part of the laws/news that might declare their entire argument void. The same happened here as well, where only the part of the directions issued by the MeitY to twitter for blocking of certain accounts, hashtags and other things were mentioned, hence painting the central government in the colours of an authoritarian government. However, the other side of the story has something else to say. The MeitY issued the directions to the specific accounts and hashtags who had their hands tainted and coloured for spreading hate speech, misinformation and fake news with respect to the ongoing farmers’ protest in the nation.
The micro-blogging platform did comply with the previous guidelines issued by the MeitY and had blocked the accounts and hashtags which were flagged by the MeitY, but soon to the utter shock of the country, Twitter unblocked those blocked accounts and hashtags citing ‘freedom of expression’ which is a part of the Fundamental Rights of the Indian law. Hence, starting the tussle again on useless grounds, behaving like an arrogant kid.
Now let us understand the legal aspects of how flawed Twitter is when it comes to this particular incident. It is important to discuss the legal aspects of the things because we need to find a counter exactly in the shield that the microblogging site is using as a tool.
Firstly, the subjectivity of hate speech, violence and fake information. We live in a world where opinions matter, the thought process of individual vary and even the inclination of various websites, micro-blogging sites vary. However, at the very same point, when it comes to subjectivity and variation in the law(s) of a sovereign, this becomes a right which is restricted. In a very same fashion, Twitter’s subjectivity of hate speech and violence and the GoI’s subjectivity are two opposite poles. However, when it comes to situations like these, the government of the sovereign’s subjectivity prevails, because it is the government who is responsible for maintaining law and order and public order within the boundaries of the nation. Therefore, the government under the Section 69 (A) of The Information Technology Act, 2000 flagged those accounts and hashtags which posed a threat to the public order of the nation. However, twitter assumed the role of the government of the sovereign and decided to unblock the accounts because the accounts and hashtags unblocked do not incite any kind of violence and hate speech and misinformation ‘according to them’. Hence, Twitter very conveniently decided to bypass the laws of the sovereign nation of India and make their own way, hence making themselves ignorant to the saying, ‘Ignorance of law is no excuse’.
Secondly, Twitter used the shield violation of the freedom of expression which has been enshrined under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. Before we get to the idea of how flawed Twitter was even here, let us have a look at what exactly does the Article 19 of the Indian constitution says:
“Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech etc.
(1) All citizens shall have the right
(a) to freedom of speech and expression;
(b) to assemble peaceably and without arms;
(c) to form associations or unions;
(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India;
(e) to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; and
(g) to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business
(2) Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence
(3) Nothing in sub clause (b) of the said clause shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it imposes, or prevent the State from making any law imposing, in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India or public order, reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause
(4) Nothing in sub clause (c) of the said clause shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it imposes, or prevent the State from making any law imposing, in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India or public order or morality, reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause
(5) Nothing in sub clauses (d) and (e) of the said clause shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it imposes, or prevent the State from making any law imposing, reasonable restrictions on the exercise of any of the rights conferred by the said sub clauses either in the interests of the general public or for the protection of the interests of any Scheduled Tribe
(6) Nothing in sub clause (g) of the said clause shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it imposes, or prevent the State from making any law imposing, in the interests of the general public, reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause, and, in particular, nothing in the said sub clause shall affect the operation of any existing law in so far as it relates to, or prevent the State from making any law relating to,
(i) the professional or technical qualifications necessary for practising any profession or carrying on any occupation, trade or business, or
(ii) the carrying on by the State, or by a corporation owned or controlled by the State, of any trade, business, industry or service, whether to the exclusion, complete or partial, of citizens or otherwise.”
Now if the readers look at the highlighted and underlined part of the of the details of the ‘so called rights’ that the micro-blogging platform talks of, it is just limited to the citizens of India. Much to the shock and surprise to many of the readers, Twitter is not a citizen of India and hence it cannot take the defence of this right as well, as there is no violation, as such. Now, the second defence coming would be the Freedom of Speech and Expression (FoSE) for the press and media houses. Now, under the landmark judgement of the case Bennett Coleman & Co. v. Union of India AIR 1973 SC 106, the right to information was held to be included under Article 19 (1)(a) of the constitution of India and was made in favour of the freedom of press in India. Again, the flaw lies in the very fact that Twitter in itself, till date is not a press and media house, it is just a micro-blogging platform which acts as a platform to share information. However, some pseudo-intellectuals in the country might differ to this fact as they have made this micro-blogging platform as mentioned in the title as the ‘Twitter Commission of India’ which has very easily taken over even the Supreme Court of the nation which has been enshrined under Article 124 of the Indian constitution.
So these were some points with respect to the entire Twitter fiasco which continues to spread its roots in the country. However, it has been made very clear by the Minister for Law and Justice (India), Ravi Shankar Prasad that any kind of social media platform, be it LinkedIn or WhatsApp or Twitter if found its hand in the cookie jar of spreading hate speech, fake news, accounts used for nefarious and illegal activities and incitement of violence and pose a threat to the sovereign’s public order, it would be dealt with utmost seriousness and would be penalised accordingly. The Minister also mentioned the fact that the government takes the right to criticise the government with utmost respect, as it is a part of their rights, but also reminded the fact that it is not absolute and is restricted when matters of national security and public order come into the picture. However, twitter after the conversation with after a meeting between IT secretary Ajay Sawhney and top executives of the California-headquartered company on Wednesday evening, twitter has decided to come back to the line and has blocked 1,398 flagged accounts out of the 1,435 accounts flagged by the MeitY. The secretary also expressed India’s strong displeasure on the way Twitter “unwillingly, grudgingly and with great delay complied with the substantial parts” of its emergency order to remove the hashtag “farmer genocide” and all related content from its platform. Sawhney had also raised serious concerns over Twitter’s “differential treatment” in the way it handled the Capitol Hill episode in the US and the January 26 disturbance at Red Fort in India.
To conclude with, I would leave the readers not with a question, but with an opinion at the end. The shameful act done by Twitter in order to hamper the public order and morality is not something new. The same incident had happened before, when Twitter bypassed the Indian concerns and drew its own map of Leh-Ladakh region in order to appease certain people or governments around the world. Hence, the Indian government should take lesson(s) from the history and make sure that incidents like these are not repeated and the organisations take note that India’s sovereignty and laws are not a toy that they could play and use it according to their will and wish. It is a matter of grave importance and honour that our forefathers have made for us.