Centre blocking social media accounts: Courts must intervene

‘Judicial intervention is necessary and is sought, but is not clearly forthcoming. The secretive blocking process must be reformed.’

ByV V P Sharma

Published Feb 20, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedFeb 20, 2024 | 2:00 PM

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Judicial intervention is the only remedy for the increasing complaints against the Union government blocking social media accounts of academics, activists, intellectuals and critics on the pretext of maintaining public order or protecting national security.

On Monday, 19 February, journalist and founder of Alt News, Muhammed Zubair, posted a request on X — previously Twitter — asking the government to restore the blocked accounts.

“A lot of X accounts critical of BJP Govt have either been suspended or withheld in India,” he posted.

“Many influential X accounts of ground reporters/influencers/prominent farm unionists covering Farmers’ Protest in India are suspended too. Sharing a few accounts. But there are many more X accounts which were suspended or withheld in India. Please restore them all,” Zubair requested.

The post was accompanied by a poster showing nine accounts which have just been blocked. They are: @PunYaab, @GaonSavera, @mandeeppunia1, @tractor2twiter_1, @TribalArmy, @Rattan1990, @HansrajMeena, @PandherSarvan and @ramanmann1974.

Also read: India tops blocking requests

More blocking orders

On Tuesday, 20 February, The Hindustan Times reported that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on Monday “finalised its emergency blocking orders against 177 social media accounts and links related to the farmers’ protests to maintain ‘public order’”.

It is difficult to know how many social media accounts are blocked to date. (X)

It is difficult to know how many social media accounts are blocked to date. (X)

The report said Monday’s orders were issued against 35 Facebook links, 35 Facebook profiles, 14 Instagram accounts, 42 X handles, and one each Snapchat and Reddit accounts.

The newspaper said the representatives of Meta (Formerly Facebook, Inc) and X argued at Monday’s meeting of the Section 69A blocking committee that “instead of blocking entire accounts, specific URLs with the content should be blocked”.

“If the account remained active, it could continue to post content that could lead to public unrest and public order issues,” the report quoted the committee’s response.

It is difficult to know how many social media accounts are blocked to date. The reason is not far to seek.

Prateek Waghre of the Internet Freedom Foundation said, “There is not an easy way to get a full list because these orders are normally confidential. The 2009 blocking rules have a confidentiality clause, which is, more or less, always invoked. At one point, Twitter (now X) used to disclose at least the URL via the Lumen Database, but stopped doing that in April 2023.”

Also Read: Tight security at Delhi borders, mobile internet services suspended

‘Censorship is continuous’

Hyderabad-based independent data and privacy researcher Srinivas Kodali viewed the blocking in a larger democratic context.

“The suspension of entire accounts instead of specific posts threatens an individual’s freedom of speech. The Government of India has no oversight mechanism on their actions of censorship. These unchecked censorship powers of government threaten democracy by suppressing opposition voices. This censorship is continuous irrespective of the elections,” he told South First.

The only solution is to proceed on the path to transparency, argued Apar Gupta, an advocate practising in New Delhi, when asked about a possible solution.

He looked at the problem from the legal point of view: “The blocking powers of the government, in terms of blocking accounts, hashtags and web services, is neither legal nor constitutional. However, by doing so, the government feels it is not a legal and constitutional requirement to disclose who is being blocked and, importantly, why.”

Also Read: XCheck and the murky waters of internet censorship

‘Reform secretive blocking process’

Such an attitude is anti-democracy, Gupta said, adding: “That goes against the grain of the right to information of citizens and the principles of natural justice in terms of not giving the people an opportunity to put their version before the government and defend themselves.”

He insisted judicial intervention as the key to a solution to the problem, considering that “between 2014 and 2023, there has been a 300-400 percent increase in accounts blocked every year’.

However, there’s a glitch. In 2021, when the government blocked accounts of protesters and journalists during the farmers’ protest, X challenged the blockings in the Karnataka High Court, but lost the case.

“Judicial intervention is necessary and is sought, but is not clearly forthcoming. The secretive blocking process must be reformed, and judicial intervention is necessary for this,” Gupta opined.