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Karnataka High Court dismisses Twitter plea against Centre

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Bengaluru: Karnataka High Court on Friday dismissed the petition filed by Twitter challenging ten blocking orders issued by the central government between February 2021 and 2022 directing the social media giant to take down 39 URLs.

HC Judge Krishna S Dixit also imposed Rs 50 lakh penalty on Twitter, saying that it did not give reasons for not complying with Union government’s demands for blocking.

The Court ordered penalty payment within 45 days to the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority, if delayed an additional Rs 5,000 should be paid for every day.

“Your client (Twitter) was given notices and your client did not comply…Punishment for non-compliance is 7 years imprisonment and unlimited fine. That also did not deter your client. So you have not given any reason why you delayed compliance, more than a year of delay…then all of sudden you comply and approach the Court. You are not a farmer but a billion dollar company,” the Court said, pronouncing the verdict.

“In the above circumstances the petition being devoid of merits is liable to be dismissed with exemplary cost and accordingly is dismissed. Petitioner is levied with exemplary cost of Rs 50 lakh payable to the Karnataka State Legal services Authority, within 45 days and if delay is brooked it will attract an additional of Rs 5,000 per day,” Justice Dixit added.

The Court had reserved its verdict in the matter on April 21 after prolonged submissions made by both parties.

The central government submitted that Twitter cannot speak on behalf of its account holders and, therefore, it had no locus standi to file the petition.

Further, since Twitter is a foreign entity, it could not fall back on fundamental rights under Articles 14 (right to equality) and 19 (right to freedom of speech and expression) of the Indian Constitution to argue the matter. Moreover, the central government’s ten blocking orders were not arbitrary, it argued.

The Centre also submitted that the directions to block certain Twitter accounts were issued in national and public interest, and to prevent incidents of lynching and mob violence.

The government emphasised that it is committed to providing an open, safe, trusted and accountable internet to its citizens, and that its powers to block information has a limited scope.

On the other hand, Twitter submitted that the central government was not empowered to issue general orders calling for the blocking of social media accounts and that the orders must contain reasons which should be communicated to users.

It also stated that a blocking order could only be issued in a situation where the nature of the content was in line with the grounds laid down under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act.

Additionally, if reasons were not recorded in such blocking orders, there would be a possibility of reasons being manufactured at a later stage, Twitter said.

Invocation of Article 226 of the Constitution (writ jurisdiction of High Courts) was also argued to be not limited to the violation of Constitutional rights and there was no bar on Twitter approaching the Court, the social media giant argued.

In its petition filed before the High Court, Twitter contended that account-level blocking is a disproportionate measure and violates the rights of users under the Constitution.

Out of a total of 1,474 accounts and 175 tweets, Twitter challenged the blocking of only 39 URLs.

The petition stated that the orders in question are manifestly arbitrary, and procedurally and substantively not in consonance with Section 69A of the IT Act.

Further, they fail to comply with the procedures and safeguards prescribed by the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (Blocking Rules), it was submitted.

Twitter also argued that the direction to block entire accounts falls afoul of Section 69A of the IT Act.

Senior Advocates Ashok Haranahalli, Arvind Datar and Advocate Manu Kulkarni represented Twitter while Additional Solicitor General of India R Sankaranarayanan appeared for the central government

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