On August 31, Wasim Khalid, a Srinagar-based journalist, received an email from Twitter. It said that the social media platform had received “official correspondence” about his account, suggesting that it violated “Indian law”.
Two posts had been flagged. One, a story written by Khalid for a Kashmir publication in July, about a boy who said there was no “zulm (oppression)” in the Valley, until he was stopped by an Army vehicle and beaten up one day. The second, the picture of a boy, hands bound and sitting in the middle of a street, with paramilitary soldiers on either side. It was a picture that had become popular on social media and Khalid’s caption from his tweet in June said the boy was being used as a “human shield” against stone pelters.
“I want to meet a lawyer and then reply to the mail, asking what law it violates,” said Khalid.
Eventually, Khalid’s posts were not blocked. But several other Twitter accounts and tweets, most of them about Kashmir, have been suspended or withheld recently on a request from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The ministry had recommended that a wide range of tweets and accounts, including posts about the massacre of Rohingya children in Myanmar and updates by an accredited news agency, be proscribed in India.
‘In the interest of public order’
A letter from the ministry to the social media platform, dated August 24 and uploaded on the Lumen Database, says, “Request has been received from law enforcement agency for blocking 115 twitter handles/ tweets”. A committee, set up under Rule 7 of Section 69A of the Information Technology Act and empowered to examine blocking requests, had duly met in the ministry on August 4 and signed on it. It was now asking Twitter to remove them.
According to the ministry, the Twitter URLs were to be blocked “in the interest of public order as well as for preventing any cognizable offence relating to this referred in section 69A of the IT (Information Technology) Act”.
A previous letter, dated August 16, seems to have been addressed to various “intermediaries” and said the committee had met on “several occasions”. According to documents currently available on the Lumen Database, the ministry had provided a list of 133 Twitter URLs to be blocked. The letter ran: “It came to the notice of the Ministry that certain URLs which were directed for blocking in the aforesaid meeting are still accessible…Therefore you are requested to ensure removal/ blocking/ disabling of the annexed URLs immediately.”
Section 69A provides for blocking public access to information when the “the Central Government or any of its officer specially authorised by it in this behalf is satisfied that it is necessary or expedient so to do, in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above”.
The lists provided by the ministry contain handles named after the Pakistan-based leader of the Jama’at-ud-Dawah and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafiz Saeed, after Abu Dujana, a Lashkar commander recently killed in Kashmir, and after Burhan Wani, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander whose death last year triggered mass protests in the Valley, as well as posts by the Jama’at-ud-Dawah.
The lists go on to name several members of a Pakistani political party and Pakistani journalists, most of whom speak in support of Kashmiri separatism.
They also include Kashmiri journalists and activist groups who are critical of the Indian government’s policies in Kashmir. Hashtags to be proscribed include #KashmirUnrest, #KashmirNow, #Burhanwani, #PMNawaz.
Other Twitter URLs on the lists lead to photographs of Rohingya children killed in Myanmar, scenes of devastation from Syria and Palestine. Laced into this list are Twitter handles like @LutyensSpice and @LutyensMasala, accounts dealing in political gossip, @11AshokaRoad, which says in its Twitter profile that it is a “parody of news channel sources”. It also features a tweet by ANI, an accredited national news agency, on a statement by the Kashmiri separatist leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
Over the weekend, Twitter sent out a warning message to several individuals named in the list. But the social media platform has blocked or withheld access to only some of the URLs listed by the government, though it would not specify how many.
When asked by Scroll.in what criteria it used to decide which accounts or posts would be blocked or withheld, Twitter staff replied, “We do not comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.”
It went on to explain its “Country Content Withheld” policy. “Many countries have laws that may apply to Tweets and/or Twitter account content. In our continuing effort to make our services available to users everywhere, if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorised entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.”
The Twitter official went on to clarify: “Upon receipt of requests to withhold content, we will promptly notify affected users.”
Legal experts point out, however, that social media companies, which pride project themselves as beacons of free speech, tend to shift responsibility to the governments concerned, saying they had been compelled to block certain content. But if Twitter had decided to block some and not others, it had used its own editorial powers and not provided any explanation.
According to Twitter’s bi-annual transparency report, it received 97 removal requests from India from July to December 2016, 96 from the government and one from a court order. They involved 295 Twitter accounts. None of these requests were acted on.
‘A culture of secrecy’
Legal experts on internet freedom are troubled by the mechanism through which India’s blocking laws are implemented. In the current instance, they point out, it is not clear how many of the tweets and accounts listed by the ministry constitute threats to “public order” or any other cognisable offence under Section 69A.
According to one lawyer, who did not want to be identified, when information on a certain subject was being blocked in bulk, a lot of content got bunched together “without application of mind”. Such matters were better left to the courts, the lawyer said, which would lay down reasons for blocking specific information.
Lawyer Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director at Access Now and a co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, pointed out that the government’s online blocking orders had to meet the test of constitutionality. “Section 69A of the IT Act sets out the broad grounds under which web content blocking can be ordered. But as the Supreme Court pointed out in the Shreya Singhal judgment [striking down Section 66A of the IT Act], they also have to bear in mind the constitutional tests for any government action impacting freedom of speech.”
These standards are not always evident in blocking orders. “For example, the grounds for blocking the ANI tweet are unclear,” Chima continued. “Is ANI’s content there also being prohibited under broadcast regulations? They are trying to block things online that they would not have been able to in the outside world.”
Chima also raised concerns about the way in which the review committee on online orders functioned. “How can a review committee ask for the blocking of political satire and other handles, under what justification?” he asked. “And how is it that they have asked for compliance on this? There are senior civil servants of the Union government making this decision in Delhi and demanding compliance with earlier orders.” This was not the act of district administration officials blocking content under duress with a mob outside, he pointed out.
Part of the problem in the architecture of blocking regulations, according to Chima, is that it simply tried to replicate the process of interception as laid down in PUCL v Union of India, 1997. “It is not valid for web content,” said Chima. The current process lacked transparency, he said, with the committee meeting in secret, keeping its orders confidential, giving no clear reasons for them. It also contained no provisions for an independent review outside Union Government officials. This was in contrast to the procedure for book banning, where a public notification had to be issued first and reasons for proscription stated.
The last three to four years have seen an increase in the number of blocking requests sent to intermediaries, Chima said. Meanwhile, on August 7, the government quietly issued new internet shutdown rules through a gazette notification. According to Chima, no public draft of the rules had been circulated before that. “The culture of secrecy seems to be increasing,” he said.