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HC nixes Twitter plea, imposes Rs 50 lakh cost

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PNS|Bengaluru

The High Court of Karnataka on Friday dismissed a petition filed by Twitter Inc., challenging several blocking and take-down orders issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, saying the company’s plea was devoid of merits.

The single-judge bench of Justice Krishna S Dixit which dictated the operative portion of the judgement also imposed a cost of Rs 50 lakh on Twitter and ordered it to be paid to the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority within 45 days.

Reading the operative portion, the HC said, “In the above circumstances this petition being devoid of merits is liable to be dismissed with exemplary costs and accordingly it is. Petitioner is levied with an exemplary cost of Rs 50 lakh payable to the Karnataka State Legal Service Authority, Bengaluru, within 45 days. If delay is brooked, it attracts an additional levy of Rs 5,000 per day.”

“I am convinced with contention of the Centre that they have powers to block tweets and block accounts,” the judge said while dismissing Twitter’s petition.

The Court said that the judgement framed eight questions and only one of them; the locus standi to file the petition was answered in favour of Twitter while the rest of the questions have been answered against it. This includes the plea of Twitter to issue guidelines for exercise of Section 69A of the Information Technology Act.

Citing the judgement, the judge said, “I have framed as many as eight questions. The first question is as to the locus standi which I have answered in your favour. The second question is whether powers under Section 69A are tweet-specific or it extends to closure of accounts also. The third one is non-communication of reasons; I have held against you.”

“Next, no nexus between the reasons and grounds on which blocking can be done. That I have held against you. Then, no opportunity of hearing notice etc., that also I have held against you as you have participated in the hearings and have admitted in your plea. Then on the proportionality, whether the blocking should be period specific or they can indefinitely block. These aspects also I have held against you,” the judge said.

“Then you asked me to lay down certain guidelines. I felt there was no need for guidelines as there were some directions in Shreys Singhal (vs Union of India, 2015) and two more judgments,” the judge said.

Twitter had challenged ten different ‘blocking orders’ issued by the Ministry between February 2, 2021 and February 28, 2022. The Government had directed the microblogging site to block 1,474 accounts, 175 tweets, 256 URLs and one hashtag, Twitter had claimed before the court while only challenging the orders pertaining to 39 of these URLs.

The Ministry had issued the orders under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act. Twitter, in its petition, had however, claimed that the orders “fall foul of Section 69A both substantially and procedurally.”

Twitter had claimed that as per 69A, the account holders had to be informed about taking down their tweets and accounts, but no notice was issued by the Ministry to these account holders.

The Government issued notices to the Compliance Officer of Twitter on June 4, 2022 and again on June 6, 2022 to appear before it and explain why the Blocking Orders were not carried out and why action should not be initiated against it.

Twitter replied on June 9 that the content against which it had not followed the blocking orders does not seem to be a violation of Section 69A. On June 27, 2022 the Government issued another notice stating Twitter was violating its directions. On June 29, Twitter replied asking the Government to reconsider the direction on the basis of the doctrine of proportionality.

On June 30, 2022 the Government withdrew blocking orders on 10 account-level URLs but gave an additional list of 27 URLs to be blocked. On July one, 10 more accounts were blocked. Compiling the orders “under protest,” Twitter approached the HC with the petition challenging the orders.

Justice Dixit had completed hearing the arguments and reserved the judgement on April 21, 2023. The operative portion of the judgement was pronounced in the court on June 30.

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