Last year in June, activists running the Twitter handle @Tractor2Twitr received an email from the social media platform, stating that their account had been withheld in India.

Run by four activists from Punjab, the Twitter handle had played a role in amplifying pro-farmer voices during the 2020-’21 protests against a set of laws that sought to loosen regulations on the sale, pricing and storage of agricultural produce.

But the email about the blocking of the account came much later – at a time when YouTube had pulled down a song of the late Punjabi singer Siddhu Moosewala, ‘SYL’, three days after it was released on June 23, 2022.

The song spoke about Sikh political prisoners and justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi.

The account, like many others, had tweeted about the song.

In its email, Twitter said that the action against the account had been taken on the basis of a legal demand of the Indian government. It mentioned two tweets that it said violated local laws, said Bhavjit Singh, who is one of the admins of the account and is currently based out of India.

The email from Twitter Legal added that the company would not be able to provide the account any legal assistance but that the admins can “take appropriate action”, including seek legal counsel, contact civil society groups, or challenge the request in the court.

As it turned out, Twitter went on to file a lawsuit in July last year against 39 take-down orders from the Centre in the Karnataka High Court. The @Tractor2Twitr account, Singh said, is among those Twitter is defending in the court.

In addition, Twitter also advised those operating the account to contact the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology or MeitY, which had ordered the account to be withheld.

Singh wrote an email to the ministry’s cyber law and e-security group raising his concerns.

The response from the ministry, Singh said, was “a trap”. “They wanted [me] to fill a declaration and submit ID details,” Singh told Scroll.

The ministry asked him to vouch for the fact that the contents on the account do not go against sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, friendly relations with foreign countries, security of the state or public order or any cognisable offence relating to these said conditions.

“There is no such procedure in law that requires the users to file such declarations,” said Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer at The Software Freedom Law Center, a digital rights legal group.

In addition, the ministry sought a copy of Singh’s ID card to enable them to call him for a physical meeting to proceed with the case.

The ministry’s response made Singh wary.

“The government holds the authority to interpret tweets as per its convenience,” he said. “Even a tweet on a call to join a protest could be interpreted as against public order and used against us.”

Singh consulted his friends and lawyers and eventually decided not to send across details of his identity card.

Almost a year later, the account remains withheld.

Singh is not alone. Even elected parliamentarians have found themselves without much recourse when Twitter has withheld accounts on a legal demand.

In February 2021, Rajya Sabha MP Sukhram Singh Yadav’s Twitter account was taken down twice.

The Samajwadi Party leader had been a vocal supporter of the farmers’ protests. Yadav said he raised the matter in Parliament but his grievances were not addressed. He did not, however, approach Twitter. “Since the government did not listen, my team created another account and that is running fine,” he told Scroll.

Along with @Tractor2Twitr, there were a number of other accounts that faced action when the Moosewala song was pulled down. Among them was the account of Ravi Singh, the co-founder of Khalsa Aid.

Ravi Singh, who lives in Britain, got an email in July last year, telling him that his account has been withheld in India on the legal request from the Indian government.

“I do not know why they banned my account in India,” he said. “I do not support terrorism or terrorist activities. If that were the case, then the British government would come after me. I raise my voice against human rights violations in India and the attacks on minorities in India under the Modi government.”

A few days after the ban, he sent a legal notice to Twitter through his lawyer Karan Thukral asking the social media platform to revoke the ban.

According to Twitter’s disclosures, India was among the top four countries directing it to take down content between January and June last year. “Around the world, Twitter received approximately 53,000 legal requests to remove content from governments during the reporting period. The top requesting countries were Japan, South Korea, Turkey and India,” the social media platform said in a blog post last week.

How is a Twitter account blocked on government orders? What is the process to restore it?

Scroll spoke to users whose accounts or tweets have been withheld in the last two years on the basis of a legal demand from the government and who have tried to challenge the blocking orders. This is how they hit a wall.

A black hole

If your Twitter account is withheld, you can approach the ministry with your grievances but not as a matter of right. “It is discretionary for the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to reject or respond,” said Mishi Choudhary.

Take the case of Gagandeep Singh, a journalist who works for a digital news outlet, Pro Punjab.

His was one of over a hundred accounts, including those belonging to Punjab-based journalists and prominent members of the Sikh community in India, that were blocked in March as the police launched a massive manhunt to arrest Khalistani sympathizer Amritpal Singh.

Gagandeep Singh had posted a video clip purportedly showing Amritpal fleeing in a car.

Two days after he received an email informing that his account had been withheld, he wrote to the ministry asking why such an action was taken against his account and urged it to restore his account. “I did not violate any laws on Twitter. I was only reporting an incident which had news value,” he told Scroll.

Over a hundred Twitter accounts were withheld in India during the hunt for Amritpal Singh in Punjab. Credit: AFP.

His request was turned down.

The ministry informed him that his account has been blocked on the request of the Punjab police under emergency provisions specified in Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000.

The ministry told him that his request for restoration was turned down after an inter-ministerial meeting was held on March 21 and the case was discussed with Twitter representatives.

According to Gagandeep, the ministry said in an email response that “the committee after examining the request has endorsed the decision of the MeitY in issuing an interim order”.

For journalists, such bans can have an adverse effect on their work. “The ban has cut down my reach and affected my ability to amplify my work,” said a journalist from The Indian Express whose account was also withheld in March. “There was so much false propaganda and fake news last month. I was not able to respond to such misinformation because my account is withheld.”

A temporary ban

In May 2021, Twitter temporarily blocked the account of actor Sushant Singh without allegedly informing him about the action.

The account page showed “withheld in India in response to a legal demand”.

The access to the account was restored hours later.

Singh, with help from the Internet Freedom Foundation, wrote to the Twitter grievance redressal officer, seeking an explanation for the action. At the same time, he filed requests under the Right to Information law with the ministry.

In response, the ministry cited cited Rule 16 of the 2009 Blocking Rules to say that such orders are confidential and pointed to Rule 8(1)(a) under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (the RTI Act) that allows the government not to reveal information related to national security, sovereignty and integrity of the country.

Twitter did not respond to his email.

An opaque process

The orders to withhold content are issued under Section 69 A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which empowers the government to block access to content on the internet.

The process by which content is taken down is guided by the Information Technology Blocking Rules, which allow the government to not only block internet content but also keep the take-down orders confidential.

“Opacity is the biggest obstacle for a user if they want to get their account unbanned,” said Tanmay Singh, a tech legal expert at Internet Freedom Foundation.

Under the IT rules 2009, a committee for examination of requests, whose members are bureaucrats, recommends blocking of websites and social media accounts. A review committee formed under the rules is also mandated to assess, once in every two months, if the blocking orders issued are valid. It also has the power to revoke such orders.

But, as the government admitted in Parliament earlier this year, the review committee has not set aside any blocking order since 2014.

In February 2021, the current government passed the IT Rules 2021, which gave itself emergency powers to block content without “an opportunity for hearing”. It also held out the threat that companies can lose their safe harbour protections if they defy or violate such orders.

Safe harbour exempts social media platforms from punishment for the actions of those using its platform, if they adhere to government-prescribed guidelines.

However, Tanmay Singh says, the blocking rules have been drafted by the ministry and not the Parliament. “The ministry is, in effect, saying I am unable to provide any transparency because of the rules that I have myself drafted,” he said.

Taken together, lawyers like Choudhary point out, the government has created a “perfect mechanism of censorship by proxy.”

While Twitter does not put out regular information about the number of such take-down orders issued by the government, some of the data is available on the Lumen database — a US-based project that, according to its website, “studies takedown notices along with other legal removal requests and demands concerning online content”.

In February, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the minister of state for electronics and information technology, informed Parliament that the government had issued orders to block 10,264 Twitter links between 2018 and 2022. He did not, however, specify the number of accounts withheld and number of tweets blocked even though Dr V Sivadasan, an MP from Kerala, had pointedly sought that information in his question.

‘Opportunity to be heard’

However, lawyers have argued that in keeping take-down orders confidential, the government is in violation of the landmark 2015 Supreme Court judgment in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India, which read down a law that allowed the government to imprison a person for “offensive comments” online.

While the court in the same judgment upheld Section 69A, Tanmay Singh argued that it is also “clearly stated in the judgment that if the originator of the information that you want to block can be identified, you must provide them an order and an opportunity to be heard”.

He also argued that the government does not have the power to block an entire handle. “Section 69A and the 2009 blocking rules say it is the access to information that may be blocked,” he pointed out. “It can be argued that tweets or the contents of a page can be blocked but a social media account is not information. You can’t block a social media account as that power does not exist.”

Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar informed Parliament that the Centre issued orders to block 10,264 Twitter links between 2018 and 2022. Credit: Rajeev Chandrasekhar/Facebook

A similar argument has been made by Twitter while arguing its writ petition in the Karnataka High Court. It has pointed out that the government must provide a copy of the blocking order and give an opportunity for hearing to the affected user.

The court last week reserved judgment in the case after hearing arguments from both Twitter and the government.

The confidentiality clause of the IT rules has been also challenged by journalist Tanul Thakur in the Delhi High Court in 2019 after his satirical website Dowry calculator was blocked, without serving him any order copy.

The writ route

Though Amritpal Singh was arrested on April 23, the accounts of journalists like Gagandeep withheld during the hunt for the Khalistani sympathiser continue to be inaccessible.

In the absence of a copy of a blocking order, it will be difficult for Gagandeep to appeal the government’s decision to withhold his account.

One option available to users is filing a writ petition, arguing that their fundamental rights to free speech and a fair hearing have been affected.

Journalist Saurav Das is considering just such an option.

Twitter, in an unusual move, withheld two tweets by Das across the world. Usually such orders restrict the content in the territory within which the laws are applicable.

The tweets posted last year were on Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s comments about the judiciary. Das told Scroll that he did not know when his tweets were removed as Twitter did not inform him about the action. “Since we have not seen the order, it’s not possible to appeal, at least that’s what my lawyers said,” Das told Scroll. “Therefore a writ petition is the way.”

On April 30, The Hindu reported that Das’s tweets had been withheld on the basis of an order issued in February by the Punjab and Haryana High Court. The court had initiated suo motu contempt proceedings against three people in a case. While Das was not among those three, and nor was Shah’s comments raised in the case, it “is unclear how these tweets ended up in the proceeding”, The Hindu reported.

The actor Sushant Singh, too, filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court in February 2022 saying that withholding the information on the basis of which his account was blocked is a violation of his right to information under RTI Act. The next date of hearing is on June 21, 2023.

Scroll contacted both Twitter and the ministry of electronics and information technology, asking about the process of restoring a blocked account.

Twitter sent an automated response with a poop emoji. The story will be updated if the ministry responds.