It’s The Sovereignty, Stupid: Why India Is Right To Draw The Red Line On Twitter’s Limits Of Autonomy

It’s The Sovereignty, Stupid: Why India Is Right To Draw The Red Line On Twitter’s Limits Of AutonomyTwitter on smartphone (Unsplash)
  • By banning Tiktok, Modi government had sent a clear message that India will not allow foreign influence in its local politics because that would be “prejudicial to its sovereignty“.

    But Twitter seems to have not learnt any lesson. It should be ready to face the music now.

The Narendra Modi government finally drew the red line yesterday (3 February) on the US tech giant Twitter’s limits of autonomy as far as its India operations are concerned.

Taking a tough stand against the hate-filled content shared on the microblogging social media platform during the farmer protests, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) sent a five-page notice to Twitter stating that ‘Incitement to genocide is not a freedom of speech. It is a threat to law and order’.

The notice referred to '#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide' hashtag which trended on Twitter last week which the government said ‘was designed to inflame passions, hatred and [was] factually incorrect’.

MEITY had passed an interim order on 31 January as a matter of emergency blocking 257 URLs and 1 hashtag under Rule 9(1) of the Information Technology [Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public] Rules, 2009 which are based on section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (the IT act).

The latest government notice alleges that Twitter didn’t take off the objectionable content from its platform for several hours despite its order and did so only a few minutes before its Advocate appeared before the government committee on 1 February at 3 pm.

All the blocked content was soon unblocked and Twitter declined to abide by the order of the government justifying its action citing ‘newsworthiness’ and ‘free speech’.

The government has now reminded Twitter that it is bound by Indian law.

The notice sent to Twitter clarified that it was an "intermediary" as defined under Section 2[1][w] of the Information Technology Act and it cannot decide the impracticability or disproportionality of the issue at hand as it is bounded by the orders passed by the Central government.

Further, the notice said that ’Twitter has no constitutional, statutory or any legal basis whatsoever to comment upon the interplay of statutory provisions with constitutional principles or to unilaterally read down the scope of statutory provisions as per its own limited private understanding of the constitutional and statutory laws of India.’

Section 69A of the IT act, quoted repeatedly in the government notice, is clear: if the central government considers it "necessary or expedient to direct an intermediary to block for access for public and or cause to be blocked for access by the public any information generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource if the government is satisfied that the same is necessary or expedient in order to prevent incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to public order’.

While Twitter may have decided to cock a snook at India’s constitutional law, the law is quite clear.

Section 69(3) of the IT act states that intermediaries which fail to comply with the government’s order ‘shall be punished with an imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine.’

The limits on free speech put by the IT act are not standalone.

They flow from the constitution whose article 19 clause 2 states that nothing in sub clause (a) of clause (1) [which gives all citizens right to freedom of speech and expression] ‘shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the State from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.’

While Swarajya in the past has been vocal about the irrationality of many aspects of the above clause which was inserted by the first amendment to the constitution (championed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru), internal rules of a foreign company cannot override those of the constitution irrespective of their merit.

On a lighter note, if Twitter continues down the path it has chosen and leaves the Indian government with no choice but to take penal action against its executives or ban the platform outright for being a nuisance to public order, Modi’s detractors can always blame Nehru.

What they (or those Indians who like Twitter’s rules because it's in sync with their political ideology) cannot do is dispute the exclusive right of the Parliament to debate, decide and alter the constitution.

That’s the sole prerogative of the Indian State. Indians alone can and will decide when and how to reform the deficiencies in the constitution. That idea is at the very foundation of our sovereignty. ‘WE THE PEOPLE’ in the constitution refers to Indians, not Twitter executives aligned with alien ideologies and driven by their narrow political interests.

The Indian State cannot allow Twitter to create a parallel ‘rule of law’ online colony that Indians must adhere to. Indians are bound by Indian laws framed by those chosen by the citizens of this country.

At the core of the tussle between the government and Twitter is not free speech or the platform’s autonomy, it’s India’s sovereignty. The Indian government has so far not taken Twitter to task for arbitrarily shadow banning and de-platforming people on the Right while allowing a free run to those on the left side of the political spectrum. It had allowed it full autonomy on that front. It’s only when Twitter refused to comply with the Indian law and challenged India’s sovereignty that the government has taken a tough stand.

The issue of sovereignty was also the main reason for India’s ban on Tiktok. MEITY had reasoned then that Tiktok and other banned Chinese apps were ‘engaged in activities which is prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.’

At the time, I had argued that just as Chinese apps allowed themselves to become the tools in the hands of Chinese Communist Party, the US tech giants like Twitter were also slowly becoming the tools at the hands of Leftists and setting themselves up for failure.

But Twitter seems to have not learnt any lesson. India cannot allow intervention of foreign ideologies in its local politics because that would be “prejudicial to its sovereignty“. If Twitter still refuses to back down, it should be ready to face the music in New India.

Arihant is Senior Editor, Swarajya


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