"Twitter cannot be high and mighty": Centre tells Delhi High Court in plea’s on suspension of user accounts

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While arguing before the Delhi High Court today in pleas filed by users like Wokeflix, @Bharadwajspeaks and others challenging the suspension of their user handles by Twitter Inc, the Central Government submitted that Twitter cannot be all high and mighty.

Additional Solicitor General of India, Chetan Sharma further submitted before Court that the Centre was committed in safeguarding the rights of the users on the social media platforms as guaranteed under Article 14, 19 and 21.

In the affidavit submitted on behalf of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), the Centre has clarified that there is no provision under which information can be edited or modified before transmission suo-motu by an intermediary like Twitter.

"In other words, there is no sanction for this action under the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the recent Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 made thereunder.", adds the affidavit.

The affidavit filed through N Samaya Balan, a Scientist-E at MeitY, adds that since Twitter falls under the Significant Social Media Intermediary (SSMI) category as defined in the IT Rules, 2021, as per rule 4(8) the SSMI is expected to issue a prior notification to the user explaining the action being taken and the grounds or reasons for taking such action. 

"However, the nature of the information and its gravity should play a key role in determining whether a prior notice to the user is required to be issued or not and whether only the alleged information is to be removed in part or in whole. In this context, it is submitted that the information here may mean but not limited to a single or a group of message(s)/ text(s)/ tweet(s) or even the complete account/ handle of the user, hosted/ posted/ transmitted/ shared by this user...", the affidavit states.

Enumerating the circumstances under which any user can be suspended or de-platformed, the Centre has stated that except in those cases where there is a direction by the government or order of the court, in the circumstances so enumerated, wholesale suspension of a user’s account is against the spirit of Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India.

Centre has further stated that when a SSMI platform takes a decision to suspend the whole or part of the user account ‘on its own accord’ due to its policy violation, it should afford a reasonable opportunity to the user to defend his side, except in certain scenarios such as rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material (CSAM), bot activity or malware, terrorism related content etc.

"In these situations the intermediary may not find it prudent to inform the user prior to taking down their information", it has clarified.

The court has also been informed that if such notice is not issued by the SSMI, this would amount to violation of the IT Rules, 2021. In such a case, the aggrieved user can invoke Rule 7 of the IT Rules, 2021 and seek action against the platforms by initiating appropriate proceedings as per law, the affidavit states.

"....the taking down the whole information or the user account should be a last resort and the platform may at all times, endeavor to guard the users’ fundamental rights by following the principles of natural justice and afford reasonable time and opportunity to the user to explain his stand...", the government has argued.

In conclusion, the central government has submitted that  SSMIs must be held accountable for subjugating and supplanting fundamental rights like the right to freedom of speech and expression, otherwise the same would have dire consequences for any democratic nation.

Today, while hearing the instant matter, a single judge bench of Justice Yashwant Varma of the Delhi High Court told the social media giant to “wake up”.

"It is high time that you wake up", remarked Justice Varma while replying to the argument made by Twitter on the maintainability of the writ petitions filed by the users.

Earlier this month, the Delhi High Court had issued notice on a petition by "Wokeflix", an unregistered social media group engaged in posting political satires, against the permanent suspension of its Twitter handle and temporary suspension of Instagram handle.

Citing that while many incidents of serious deviations of misreporting remain unchecked, Wokeflix had argued that that the suspension of its accounts are "absolutely arbitrary".

In January, the High Court had sought response from Twitter and Centre against the suspension of accounts with the well known handle " @Bharadwajspeaks" and user handle "@Suyashdeep". 

Case Title: Wokeflix through Megha Choubey vs. UoI & Ors | Dimple Kaul vs. UOI & Ors. | Suyash Deep Rao vs. UOI & Ors.