Online Speech – An Individual Liberty

Edlyn Cardoza | 08 February, 2021 | Mumbai

Twitter and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) are wrangling over an official order to block certain social media handles and tweets, posted by users of 01 February, 2021. Farmers’ protests are the content that is in question. Twitter is reported to have received a blocking order under Section 69A of India’s Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, after which many user accounts were disabled. However, after 48 hours Twitter did proceed to restore many of those accounts, claiming that the combative tweets were “newsworthy” and hence comprised “free speech”. But MeitY has threatened penal action against the company. 

This most recent predicament over political speech shared via social media has more extensive ramifications than what meets the eye. Indian commentators often invoke former United States President Donald Trump’s executive order on online censorship and dub social media platforms as the “21st century equivalent of the public square”. There is definitely a solid case to be made for this affirmation – given the scale and pervasiveness of social media in India. More than 700 million individuals have access to the broadband internet and almost half-a-billion utilize these platforms to share assorted information, making India’s online circle the biggest democratic based conversation board on the planet. Likewise, these comprehensive features challenge the monopoly of governments or private actors over censorship of online speech. 

Section 69A of the IT Act gives the Centre the powers to be able to block public access to any data or information available online. An emergency provision under this section, which was reportedly invoked to give requests to Twitter, also takes into consideration “strict confidentiality” about grievances and requests received, and action taken by the government to block such access. As such, neither Twitter nor the government requires to provide citizens with a point by point rationale or reasoning for content takedowns.

As a result, aggrieved users have restricted legal recourse since they can’t access or understand or see such orders. This procedural mistiness is similar to the umpteen instances of unilateral takedowns of user-generated content by social media majors. The most conspicuous one was when Twitter removed Trump’s account a month ago, following the uproars on Capitol Hill. 

The Hindustan Times reported, that while “reasonable restrictions” under the Constitution restrict the freedom of speech and articulation in India, incorrect speech out in open squares can divert to truth just if members are made aware of its deceptions. In his well known theory, John Stuart Mill, On Liberty contended that “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility”. The government or social media platforms, on rejecting a hearing to a point of view, assume a place of absolute sureness. This runs contrary to the historical backdrop of mankind, which is loaded with instances of the untrustworthiness of the individuals who have the ability to censor. The digital sphere is commended as an exceptional space for individual liberties. In the surviving case, a trade off on free speech absolutism online should just be made through transparent and proportionate methods. A nitty gritty reasoning for blocking information on social media should consistently be available to the public. The confidentiality of the blocking process under Section 69A sets an awful precedent. It comes from the presupposition that the normal citizen is too immature to be able to distinguish between good and evil. In doing so, it legitimizes one-sided blocking of speech by private actors as well. India ought to rather utilize this latest digital governance crisis to cure its way to deal with social media regulation. Platforms must be made accountable through mandates for more noteworthy transparency in their content moderation practices and legal blocking provisions should be modernised to mirror an evaluated, citizen-centric approach.

The Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, insisted that the vast reach of the internet ought to not turn into the premise or basis to deny the right to free speech. Therefore, restrictions on online speech ought to be sensible and reasonable in each and every sense possible. Or else, the internet or the cyberspace will lose its uniqueness, will lose its most distinguishing characteristic, i.e., a platform where individual freedom can be practiced without any dread or favour. 


Image Sources:

  1. The Guardian
  2. American Civil Liberties Union
  3. Time Magazine

Edlyn Cardoza

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