The Karnataka High Court on Friday dismissed a plea filed by Twitter challenging the Central government’s orders to block 39 tweets and accounts on the platform between February 2021 and February 2022, reported Bar and Bench.

Justice Krishna S Dixit imposed a fine of Rs 50 lakh on Twitter, saying that it did not give reasons for not complying with the Centre’s demands in a timely manner.

“You [Twitter] have not given any reason why you delayed compliance, more than a year of delay...then all of sudden you comply and approach the court,” Justice Dixit said, according to Live Law. “You are not a farmer unfamiliar with the law, but a billion-dollar company.”

The judge said he was convinced with the Centre’s argument that it not only had the power to ask Twitter to take down tweets but it can also ask the company to block accounts.

In February 2021, the government had asked Twitter to remove hundreds of accounts that criticised the Centre over its handling of the large-scale farmer protests that started in November 2020. The social media platform initially refused but eventually relented after its local employees were threatened with prison.

In July, Twitter moved the Karnataka High Court challenging the legality of the blocking orders, saying they “demonstrate excessive use of powers”. The company told the High Court that between February 2021 and February 2022, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asked it to take down 175 tweets and more than 1,400 accounts.

During the hearing before the High Court, Twitter had argued that the government should provide users of the social media platform with a reason for blocking their accounts.

It had told the court that the rights of its users under Article 19 (right to freedom of speech and expression) are infringed upon if their accounts are blocked without notice and that the reason for restricting accounts should be mentioned.

However, the Centre had said that Twitter is a foreign business entity and has no right to speak on behalf of those whose accounts have been blocked on government orders.

In April last year too, the Centre had asked Twitter to pull down accounts that criticised the government’s handling of Covid-19 during the second wave when lakhs of people died. The Centre has also repeatedly criticised Twitter for not fully complying with the Information Technology rules that came into force in May last year.

Reactions to the verdict

Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on Friday welcomed the decision of the Karnataka High Court, saying that the bench has upheld the Modi government’s stand. “Law of the land must be followed,” Vaishnaw wrote in a tweet.

Union Minister of State for Electronics and Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar said that he hoped social media platform would learn from the verdict, ANI reported.

“Platforms working with the government of India, working with the citizens and consumers of India work with the compliance of the Indian law,” he said. “...I hope there is a learning from this for Jack Dorsey [co-founder of Twitter] that the government of India’s expectation previously, today and in the future will always be in compliance with the law.”

Radhika Roy of the Internet Freedom Foundation told Scroll that the court seems to have missed that the procedure that has been laid down under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act is being blatantly ignored by the government.

Section 69A of the Act allows the government to issue content-blocking orders to online intermediaries such as Internet Service Providers, telecom service providers, web hosting services, search engines, and online marketplaces, among others.

“Notices of takedown are never sent to the originator of the content and blocking orders are never made public,” Roy said. “This frustrates principles of natural justice because it does not allow the affected entity to challenge it properly.”

She stated that the court’s decision to allow the “wholesale” blocking of accounts also goes against the doctrine of proportionality.

“Twitter itself states that if an account repeatedly flouts its policies, it will be banned,” Roy said. “However, when the government does that on the basis of one tweet, they impede the freedom of speech and expression of the users. Furthermore, the users are rarely informed about the reasons why their accounts have been withheld by the government.”