Karnataka HC and Twitter
Terming it a classic case of speculative litigation, the Karnataka High Court today slapped ₹50 lakh exemplary costs on Twitter for its challenge to the Central government’s orders to block certain tweets and accounts. [X Corp v. Union of India]
In a 109-page ruling, Justice Krishna S Dixit elaborated on why he was convinced that the Centre’s demands were justified and why Twitter deserved no mercy for its conduct.
Below are the highlights of the judgment.
1. Power under Section 69A IT Act includes power to ban tweets as well as Twitter accounts
The Court has held that, “the power to block under section 69A(1) of the Act read with Website Blocking Rules is not tweet-specific but extends to user accounts in their entirety.”
Justice Dixit held that Section 69A of the Information Technology Act cannot be restrictively interpreted as it would render the provision otiose.
“ A tweet specific ban may encourage the tweeter to get into ‘better luck next time’ approach,” the Court explained.
It added that the State need not “await the arrival of an avalanche or mishaps” and that it can take preventive action.
2. Central government can decide how long a tweet or account should be blocked
Justice Dixit opined that it is a matter of State policy to decide how long a tweet or a Twitter handle should be blocked.
Referring to the Supreme Court’s Shreya Singhal judgment, the High Court observed,
“… the periodicity of such orders is a matter left to the discretion of the Executive in the exercise of which a host of factors would enter the fray and most of them are judicially unassessable.”
Justice Dixit remarked that even if the Court had powers to lay down guidelines, it would not exercise such power at the instance of a “foreign entity engaged in speculative litigation.”
The judge added that there is no sufficient evidence to indicate any abuse of power.
3. Decisions to block Twitter handles were not reckless
The Court was convinced by the Central government’s contention that it had not recklessly resorted to blocking Twitter accounts.
Rather, the Court was told that these were handles with repetitive posts, behavioural antecedents and contained objectionable tweets which had a great propensity to incite anti-national content.
There were no allegations made of any malafide intention on the part of the officers who took the decision either, the verdict stated.
4. Anti-India campaigners, terrorists, sedition-seekers and sympathisers don’t need notice of blocking
The Court agreed with the decision not to give notice to Twitter users in some of the cases under dispute.
These users were referred to as anti-India campaigners, terrorists, sedition-seekers and foreign adversaries who intended to destabilise India.
It is not desirable to issue notice to such users as such a course would only cause more harm, the Court said.
“The user will get alert of the same and get more aggressive, change his identity and will try to do more harm by either getting himself anonymous and spread more severe content…” the Court remarked.
It also noted that none of these users personally complained of their rights being infringed by the blocking.
5. Demands for taking down Twitter content were reasoned
The Court found that the Centre’s blocking orders were reasoned and founded on law, facts and evidence.
It said that the objectionable content sought to be blocked had outrageous, treacherous and anti-national content and that no reasonable person would say that there were reasons lacking to take down such content.
The Court added that it cannot delve into whether the evidence or reasons cited were sufficient.
“It is not that one single official functionary of the government in the fit of anger or anxiety has made these orders … The impugned orders are a product of institutional deliberation,” the Court added.
6. On Twitter’s “clandestine” conduct
The Court found that Twitter had purposely delayed complying with blocking orders without any plausible explanation. This meant that the tweet could potentially go more viral, the Court observed.
Twitter had also eaten into time that could have been spent on hearing other Indian litigants, the Court added.
“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.”
Moreover, the Court noted that Twitter later abruptly complied with the blocking orders with a “clandestine caveat” of reserving the right to challenge the same.
“This is a classic case of speculative litigation and therefore, petitioner is liable to suffer levy of exemplary costs,” the Court said.
7. Misuse of social media through generation of fake news, propoganda could hijack a democracy
“These platforms hold the potential to alter civic engagement that may eventually hijack democracy, by influencing the masses toward a particular way of thinking,” the Court added.