The Delhi High Court refused to grant interim protection and said the government can take action against Twitter in accordance with the law over non-compliance of the Information and Technology Rules 2021.
Justice Rekha Palli observed that technically Twitter was in contempt of court for failing to clarify that it had appointed an "interim" officer as opposed to a permanent official as mandated by the IT Rules 2021.
The high court's move comes two days after it pulled up Twitter over delay in appointing a Chief Compliance Officer, Resident Grievance officer, nodal officer and a physical address in India in accordance with the IT Rules.
"Come up with a clear response, otherwise you will be in trouble," Justice Palli had warned Twitter on July 6.
Earlier today, Twitter had filed a short note in which it submitted that it had appointed an interim Chief Compliance officer as of July 6. The note added that Twitter would "endeavour in good faith to make an offer of employment to qualified candidates to fill this position in eight weeks.
The high court's refusal to protect Twitter is a shot in the Centre's arm as Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said the "law of the land is supreme" while asking the micro-blogging site to comply with the rules. Vaishaw's statement comes a day after he was inducted into the Union Cabinet and replaced Ravi Shankar Prasad as the IT Minister.
The Indian government is at loggerheads with Twitter over non-compliance with its rules. The Centre had notified new rules and social media companies were mandated to comply with them within three months.
According to the new rules—notified in May 2021—Twitter is required to, but has failed to, appoint: a. Chief Compliance Officer b. Resident Grievance Officer c. Nodal Contact Person d. A physical contact address in India
What is interim officer? Will he be responsible for Twitter?: HC to Twitter
The high court questioned Twitter over the use of the term 'interim" for the appointment of the mandated Chief Compliance Officer. "Will this 'interim' appointment as Chief Compliance Officer take all responsibility under the Rules? Where have you said it (in the note)?" the court asked.
Senior advocate Sajjan Poovayya – representing Twitter, said, interim officers were appointed since there is no permanent liaison office in India. However, the process has been initiated to set one up, he added. "A resident grievance officer will be appointed by July 11 and nodal contact person within two weeks," Poovayya added.
"Permanent appointments made by Twitter may lead to tax issues. We are in the process of setting up a permanent liaison office which will take eight weeks," Poovayya said.
"I am not giving eight weeks' time," Justice Palli said.
"The reading of the Rules is that three months' time was given. Admittedly, we did not do it in three months, however, given the fact of the pandemic, those other organizations had a liaison office, and we don't, some considerations may be given. No doubt we've breached it," Poovayya said.
"Ok, but I am not going to protect you," Justice Palli reiterated. "I'm not seeking any protection, there is no penalty, the consequence is that I will no longer enjoy the protection I did as a Social Media Intermediary," Poovayya submitted.
He further added that these appointments were made though Twitter has reserved their right to challenge the IT Rules, 2021.
"Yes, of course. You have the right to challenge. But I had said that from the start, as long as the Rules are there, you have to comply," Justice Palli replied. The high court then directed Twitter to file an affidavit stating that these 'interim' officers would be responsible for its conduct under the IT Rules 2021.
The high court added that each of the "so-called interim" officers will also file affidavits in court stating that they are responsible for Twitter and its compliance with new IT Rules.
Striving to comply with rules, but reserve right to challenge the same: Twitter to HC
In its short note, Twitter submitted that it was striving to comply with the IT Rules 2021, however it reserved its right to challenge the same.
"Twitter has appointed a resident of India as its interim Chief Compliance Officer ("Interim CCO") effective 6th July 2021. Twitter has engaged the services of the Interim CCO as a contingent worker via a third-party contractor. Twitter has also addressed a communication to MeitY," it told the high court.
The note added that Twitter has posted publicly a job announcement for a Resident Grievance Officer as a direct employee and is accepting applications at this time. They hoped to fill the position within eight weeks.
Twitter's row with the Centre over non-compliance of the IT Rules escalated when the Centre on July 6 told the high court that the micro-blogging site would lose its Safe Harbour Immunity if it did not immediately adhere to the "law of the land."
"Any non-compliance amounts to a breach of the provisions of the IT Rules 2021 thereby leading to (Twitter Inc) losing its immunity conferred under Section 79(1) of the IT Act, 2001," the Centre's reply had read.