The Centre on Wednesday issued a notice to Twitter India warning it with penal action for failing to comply with its January 31 order blocking accounts using the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide. However, it is pertinent to point out that some of the Twitter handles that were temporarily blocked like The Caravan did not use the hashtag.
The notice warned Twitter India of penal action over non-compliance of directions issued under provisions of section 69A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000. According to the provisions of the act, the intermediary—in this case, Twitter India—who fails to comply with the directions issued shall be punished with a jail term up to seven years and a fine.
The Centre sent the notice after Twitter India on February 1 blocked nearly 250 accounts in India in response to a legal notice but reinstated the same within a few hours. The micro-blogging platform had told government officials that the ban on the accounts was reversed since the tweets were considered as free speech.
The Centre then directed Twitter to "once again" block the same accounts, tweets and hashtag.
Section 69A of the IT allows the Government to direct an intermediary to block public access of 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.
Hashtag designed to inflame passions, hatred and is factually incorrect
The interim order was issued because the said Twitter URLs and hashtag are spreading misinformation about protests thereby increasing the probability of violence. The direction to block the hashtag "#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide" has been found to be instigating people to commit cognizable offences in relation to public order and security of the State, the notice read.
"This a is motivated campaign to abuse, inflame and create tension in society on unsubstantiated grounds. Incitement to Genocide is Not Freedom of Speech; It is Threat to Law & Order," the notice was quoted as saying according to Hindustan Times.
It may be noted that the impracticability or disproportionality of the said measure cannot be decided at the instance of Twitter which is an intermediary bound by the orders of the Central Government, the notice further read.
The Centre said that apart from the fact that the hashtag itself is provocative, Twitter's assertion that stock phrases and exaggerations/crude emotional appeals do not constitute inflammatory speech in light of the judgments of the Hon'ble Supreme Court, is "meritless" and falls foul of the relevant provisions of the IT Act. In this regard, it is necessary to point to the patent irrationality of Twitter conducting a purported constitutional balancing act in the absence of any legal mandate, it added.
Delay in blocking tweets risked law and order
The 18-page notice said that a delay in blocking the tweets and hashtag meant that the offending tweets/hashtag remained in the 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 Centre reportedly told Twitter. The Centre added that it had considered Twitter's submissions against blocking the accounts but found it necessary to take down the accounts in public interest.
"Having considered in totality, the contents of the interim order, the oral submissions of the advocate/representative of Twitter at the Committee meeting, and also the mail from Twitter expressing its disobedience of the legal blocking orders, the competent authority is satisfied that it is necessary and also expedient in the interest of public order and also for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to public order that Twitter, as an intermediary under section 2[w] of the act is once again directed to block for access by the public, the said Twitter handles and also the said hashtag with immediate effect...", it said.
"You are aware of the prevailing situation, which not only has the potential but has, in fact, resulted into a major public order issue [violence] on 26.01.2021 [during the farmer tractor rally on Republic Day]. The statutory authorities are doing everything possible to ensure that no adverse public order situation takes place, and no cognizable offences are committed," the notice said.
On February 1, Twitter India had temporarily blocked accounts belonging to news magazine The Caravan, accounts supporting the farmers union and the protests like Kisan Ekta Morcha, @TractortoTweet, BKU Ekta Urgahan (@Bkuektaugrahan) along with those of activists like Md Asif Khan (@imMAK02), Preeti Sharma Menon (@PreetiSMenon) National Executive Member, Aam Aadmi Party, actor Sushant Singh among others.
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