During the winter session of parliament at the tail end of 2021, the government responded to a question which sought details of the number of accounts which the government sought to be blocked under laws since 2014. Analysis of the government’s response in the Lok Sabha revealed that there was a 270% increase (in 2020) in the number of social media accounts and websites that the government blocked since 2019. We must proceed with caution in the face of such trends, considering that the government reported 128 accounts belonging to journalists and news organisations in 2020. This has raised concerns that the government is abusing the laws meant to deal with unlawful content.
When authorities demand the removal of such online content, they use a legislative provision enacted under the Information Technology Act (IT Act). The provision, known as the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules has an infamous record. Often shortened to “the intermediate rules”, its provisions were implemented despite widespread resistance from across society. Among several concerns raised against the intermediary rules, its provisions contain language which are far-reaching in nature. When such laws contain broad language, the risk of authorities misusing the laws increases, and these concerns are real.
To recollect, the Indian government’s own record reflected an increase in such demands over the years. Data provided in Twitter’s removal requests report of 2020 reflects this, as it showed that India submitted the second-highest legal demands in the world. After the intermediary rules were introduced in 2021, transparency reports from Twitter and Meta (Facebook and Instagram) showed no departure from its trend of demanding removal of online content. Twitter, for example, received 16,511 legal demands to remove content between January and December 2021. Meta, on the other hand, removed 442 instances of such content in response to similar legal demands from January to July 2021.
On the surface, these data do not appear to be a reason for alarm. However, a closer look at the circumstances reveals otherwise. During the height of the farmer protests, the authorities issued legal demands to Twitter, asking that several accounts be taken down. In February 2021, accounts belonging to news organisations, farmers groups, and activists were subsequently withheld. In another instance from January 2022, stand-up comic Munawar Faruqui’s tweet on prime minister Narendra Modi was withheld. In a subsequent Instagram story, the stand-up comic shared how he received a notification that his tweet had been withheld because the Indian government claimed it violated India’s IT Act.
Such instances are concerning, since the reported and blocked accounts were actioned based on political reasons. Whether it dealt with covering events, supporting a protest, or tweeting a joke about the PM, none of these circumstances could ordinarily explain how these accounts violated Indian law. This is perhaps the reason why authorities resort to speculative and dubious justifications to censor online content. For instance, authorities recently ordered the blocking of YouTube channels because they were “spreading anti-India propaganda”.
Such actions strike at the heart of freedom of expression and cannot ordinarily be understood to constitute a reasonable restriction on the right. When the Constituent Assembly was debating this right in 1948, members of the Constituent Assembly foresaw the future challenges to its fulfilment. In particular, the Assembly expressed concern that wide terms provided in laws could undermine the enforcement of the right. 72 years after the constitution was adopted, the concerns which the Constituent Assembly foresaw are now a reality.
As we commemorate our 73rd Republic Day, it is time for Indian authorities to follow the ideals enshrined in our constitution. The instances presented above have highlighted the worrying misuse of the wide terms provided in the intermediary rules. The rules are a hallmark of authoritarian regimes and have no place in a democratic republic like ours and must be repealed.
Jade Lyngdoh is a FITS scholar at National Law University, Jodhpur. The views expressed here are personal.