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This petition was heard for days together, keeping at bay worthier causes of native litigants who were waiting in a militant silence and in a long queue.
Karnataka High Court on Friday dismissed a petition filed by Twitter Inc., challenging several blocking and take-down orders issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), saying the company's plea was devoid of merits. The single-judge bench of Justice Krishna S Dixit which dictated the operative portion of the judgement also imposed a cost of Rs.50 lakh on Twitter and ordered it to be paid to the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority within 45 days. Failing to pay the cost within 45 days will result in imposition of additional costs of Rs.5,000 per day, the HC said. The 109-page order which took references from the US constitution and UK court judgments to vedic scriptures quoting "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" verse from Mahopanishad said " This petition was heard for days together, keeping at bay worthier causes of native litigants who were waiting in a militant silence and in a long queue."
The HC said, In the above circumstances this petition being devoid of merits is liable to be dismissed with exemplary costs and accordingly it is. Petitioner is levied with an exemplary cost of Rs.50 lakh payable to the Karnataka State Legal Service Authority, Bengaluru, within 45 days. If the delay is brooked, it attracts an additional levy of Rs.5,000 per day. I am convinced with contention of the Centre that they have powers to block Tweets and block accounts, the HC said while dismissing Twitter's petition. The observations of the Court on Friday did not make things easier for Twitter. Your client was given notices and your client did not comply.
Punishment for non-compliance is seven years imprisonment and an unlimited fine. That also did not deter your client. You have not given any reason why you delayed compliance for more than a year. Then all of a sudden, you comply and approach the court. You are not a farmer but a billion dollar company, Justice Krishna S Dixit said.
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The HC said that the petition filed by Twitter was speculative litigation.' Abruptly, the impugned orders have been implemented with a clandestine caveat of reserving the right to challenge. This is a classic case of speculative litigation and therefore, the petitioner is liable to suffer levy of exemplary costs. The suspension of the account of former US President Donald Trump was also cited in the case. The Additional Solicitor General had cited the permanent suspension of the twitter account @realDonaldTrump. The HC in its judgement cited this and said, ?The above action of the petitioner (Twitter) and the reasons on which it is founded supports the case of the respondents (Union Government) that a direction or blocking of accounts as an extreme measure can be given and there is nothing unusual in that.
The Court said that the judgement framed eight questions and only one of them; the locus standing to file the petition was answered in favour of Twitter while the rest of the questions have been answered against it. This includes the plea of Twitter to issue guidelines for the exercise of Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. Citing the judgement, the Court said, ?I have framed as many as eight questions. The first question is as to the locus standi which I have answered in your favour. The second question is whether powers under Section 69A are Tweet-specific or it extends to closure of accounts also. The third one is non-communication of reasons; I have held against you."
"Next, no nexus between the reasons and grounds on which blocking can be done. That I have held against you. Then, no opportunity of hearing notice etc., that also I have held against you as you have participated in the hearings and have admitted in your plea. Then on the proportionality, whether the blocking should be period specific or they can indefinitely block. These aspects also I have held against you." "Then you asked me to lay down certain guidelines. I felt there was no need for guidelines as there were some directions in Shreys Singhal (vs Union of India, 2015) and two more judgments,? the HC said.
On Twitter's plea for segregating objectionable tweets and innocuous ones, the HC in its judgement said, the Petitioner's contention that the respondents ought to have segregated objectionable content at the tweet level and thereafter, resorted to tweet level blocking, is liable to be rejected since such an exercise is impracticable inasmuch as the mischievous originators of the information would designedly mix provocative tweets/illegal contents with the so-called innocuous ones. Another major contention of Twitter was that notices were not issued to account holders before their accounts/tweets were blocked. The HC in its judgement said, Petitioner being an intermediary, cannot invoke Rule 8(1) as a launchpad of its tirade when apparently the said Rule is promulgated to protect the interests of only users of the account and not others. In response to views on the Karnataka High Court order rejecting Twitter's appeal, Minister of State for Electronics and IT Rajeev
Chandrasekhar said that the order clearly lays down non-compliance to government order is not an option and all platforms, big or small, need to comply with Indian laws.
"In this particular case as you remember they (Twitter) were given a large number of directions under the law which they did not comply with and then when they were sent a legal notice they chose to go to the courts. This is part of the fiction that Mr Dorsey (former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey" had also put out," he told PTI on the sidelines of a Broadband India Forum event. "I am very glad that the court has today laid down very clearly that non-compliance is not an option regardless of where your jurisdiction is, or who you think your owner is. The platforms in India, all platforms big or small, Indian or foreign have to comply with the Indian law and the rules that are enacted under the law," Chandrasekhar said. He said that the government's relationship with the platforms is not adversarial and Meity only insisted that the laws be followed and laws be complied with.
Twitter had challenged ten different blocking orders' issued by the ministry between February 2, 2021 and February 28, 2022. The Government had directed the microblogging site to block 1,474 accounts, 175 Tweets, 256 URLs and one hashtag, Twitter had claimed before the court while only challenging the orders pertaining to 39 of these URLs.
MeiTY had issued the orders under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. Twitter in its petition had however claimed that the orders ?fall foul of Section 69A both substantially and procedurally. Twitter had claimed that as per 69A, the account holders had to be informed about taking down their tweets and accounts, but no notice was issued by MeiTY to these account holders.
The Government issued notices to the Compliance Officer of Twitter on June 4, 2022 and again on June 6, 2022 to appear before it and explain why the Blocking Orders were not carried out and why action should not be initiated against it.
Twitter replied on June 9 that the content against which it had not followed the blocking orders does not seem to be a violation of Section 69A. On June 27, 2022 the Government issued another notice stating Twitter was violating its directions. On 29th Twitter replied asking the Government to reconsider the direction on the basis of the doctrine of proportionality. On June 30, 2022 the Government withdrew blocking orders on 10 account-level URLs but gave an additional list of 27 URLs to be blocked. On July 1, 10 more accounts were blocked. Compiling the orders "under protest," Twitter approached the HC with the petition challenging the orders. Justice Krishna S Dixit had completed hearing the arguments and reserved the judgement on April 21, 2023. The operative portion of the judgement was pronounced in the court on June 30. The judgement copy is awaited.