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Indian Court's Dismissal of Twitter's Petition Sparks Concerns About Free Online Speech

FILE - A woman looks at the Twitter page of pop star Rihanna in New Delhi, India, July 15, 2021.
FILE - A woman looks at the Twitter page of pop star Rihanna in New Delhi, India, July 15, 2021.

In India, a recent court judgement that dismissed a legal petition by Twitter challenging the federal government’s orders to block tweets and accounts is a setback for free speech, according to digital rights activists.

The Karnataka High Court, which delivered its judgement last week, also imposed a fine of $ 61,000 on the social media company for its delay in complying with the government’s takedown orders.

“The order sets a dangerous precedent for curbing online free speech without employing procedural safeguards that are meant to protect users of online social media platforms,” Radhika Roy, a lawyer and spokesperson for the digital rights organization, Internet Freedom Foundation, told VOA.

Twitter’s lawsuit filed last year was seen as an effort to push back against strict information technology laws passed in 2021 that allow the government to order the removal of social media posts.

The government has defended the regulations, saying they are necessary to combat online misinformation in the interest of national security, among other reasons, and says social media companies must be accountable. Critics say the rules enable the government to clamp down on online comments that authorities consider critical.

In court, Twitter argued that 39 orders of the federal government to take down content went against the law. It is not known which content it referred to, but media reports have said that many of these contained political content and dissenting views against farm laws that sparked a massive farmers protest in 2020.

The government told the court the content was posted by “anti-India campaigners.”

The court ruled that the government has the power to block not just tweets, but entire accounts as well.

“I would disagree with that. The court had an opportunity to ensure that while illegal speech is taken down, free speech for individuals is not restricted,” Nikhil Pahwa, founder of MediaNama, a digital news portal told VOA. “But the court has reiterated that the government has full authority to censor whatever they want and whatever they deem illegal and that is a challenge for free speech in India.”

The government has welcomed the decision of the Karnataka High Court. "Honourable court upholds our stand. Law of the land must be followed," Minister of Communications, Electronics & Information Technology, Ashwini Vaishnaw, said in a tweet.

Twitter had also told the court the grounds for taking down content had not been spelled out by the government and that those whose tweets or accounts were blocked had not been informed. But the court said that the user did not necessarily have to be informed.

Digital rights activists say this raises concerns because there is no way to ascertain whether the government’s takedown requests are legal.

“This excessive power (of blocking whole accounts) coupled with the lack of transparency surrounding the blocking orders, spells trouble for any entity whose content has the potential of being deemed unfavourable to the government,” according to Roy.

Pahwa said the fine imposed by the court on Twitter would also discourage social media companies from going to court to protect their users right to free speech. “We are at a moment of despair for free speech in India. This does not bode well for users who might be critical of the government and its actions and inactions leading up to next year’s general elections,” according to Pahwa.

Expressing concerns that India is moving towards imposing greater restrictions on online speech, Roy says that “the Karnataka judgement ends up perpetuating the misuse of laws restricting free speech rather than countering its rampant abuse.”

Last month, Jack Dorsey, who stepped down as chief executive in 2021, said that during his tenure, Twitter had been issued with threats of a shutdown down in India and raids at the homes of its employees if it refused to agree to takedown requests. The government dismissed his comments as an “outright lie.”

Twitter has said that India ranked fourth among countries that requested removal of content last year -- behind Japan, Russia and Turkey.

India, with an estimated 24 million Twitter users, is one of the largest markets for the social media company.

Under Elon Musk, the company has complied with takedown orders. Musk, who met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to the United States last month, has said the company has no choice "but to obey local government laws" in any country or it risks getting shut.