Regulating Freedom of Speech on Social Media

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    Regulating Freedom of Speech on Social Media

    Syllabus: GS2/ Government Policies & Interventions

    In Context

    • Recently, The Karnataka High Court admonished Twitter for not complying with the blocking orders by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).

    Freedom of Expression & its restrictions in India

    • Freedom of Expression: 
      • Article 19 (a) of the Indian constitution guarantees to every citizen of India the Freedom of speech and expression.
      • It is a fundamental Right of the Indian Constitution.
    • Restriction on freedom:
      • However this Freedom under Article 19 is also not absolute. It faces certain restrictions under Article 19(2), which are as follows:
        • Matters related to the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

    Constitutionality of the blocking orders

    • Information Technology Act, 2000:
      • Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, empowers the state to issue blocking orders in cases of emergency on the grounds such as 
        • Sovereignty and integrity of India, 
        • Defence of India, 
        • Security of the State, 
        • Friendly relations with foreign States, 
        • Public order or 
        • For preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to the above. 
    • The Information Technology Rules, 2009:
      • The Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (Blocking Rules) lays down the procedure for any blocking order issued under Section 69A.

    Shreya Singhal vs Union of India

    • This constitutionality of the provisions for the blocking orders was challenged in Shreya Singhal vs Union of India.
    • In this, the Supreme Court of India upheld the validity of Section 69A and the Blocking Rules after observing that sufficient procedural safeguards were embedded.
    • The procedural safeguards are such as:
      • Provision of recording a reasoned order, and 
      • Providing notice to the intermediary and the originator whose content was sought to be blocked.

    Karnataka High Court’s recent Judgement 

    • Dismissal of Twitter’s challenge:
      • The Karnataka High Court dismissed Twitter’s challenge to the issuance of blocking orders by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) in connection with the taking down of Twitter accounts and specific tweets. 
    • Turn from the Shreya Singhal case:
      • The Karnataka High Court has held that observations in Shreya Singhal cannot be construed to mean providing notice to the users of the content, and that even if reasons are recorded in writing, they may not be conveyed to the user. 
      • Additionally, the High Court held that claims of users whose tweets or accounts were blocked could not be espoused by Twitter and that none of the affected users had approached the High Court.

    Issues & criticisms of the Judgment 

    • Undermines the right to free: The judgement undermines the right to free speech and expression and also paves the way for the state to exercise unchecked power while taking down content without following established procedure. 
      • Moreover, it exhibits a new trend to hinder digital rights and the exercise of free speech on the grounds of the dissemination of false speech.
    • Question on reasonable grounds : Misinformation and fake news are not grounds under which free speech can be restricted under Article 19(2) and Section 69A
      • The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that for speech to be prejudicial to maintenance of public order, there must be a direct link between the speech and the potential threat to public order. 
      • However, the High Court is convinced that these blocking orders are “well-reasoned”, even though no nexus can be established with public order and the security of the state.
    • Excessive and arbitrary: Disproportionate Internet shutdown orders, such as the ones currently operating in Manipur, are routinely issued to curb this spread of false speech and misinformation. 
      • This trend to restrict fundamental rights with the “fake news” rhetoric is reminiscent of the oft-cited rhetoric of the state invoking national security to justify laws that are excessive and arbitrary.
    • The Karnataka High Court’s judgement subverts the procedural safeguards that must be employed while restricting the freedom of speech, and erodes the principles of natural justice which dictate for the affected party to be allowed to present their case to the best of their abilities. 
    • Limiting future speech and expression:
      • The High Court rejected Twitter’s contention that Section 69A only permits the blocking of specific tweets. 
      • Wholesale blocking of Twitter accounts amounts to prior restraint on the freedom of speech and expression, i.e., limiting future speech and expression.

    Way ahead

    • There are disastrous effects of misinformation chaos including globalised and unregulated online information spaces that encourage fake news and propaganda. The state should have a robust regulatory framework for the same.
    • Freedom of the press is crucial to the functioning of a vibrant democracy hence the government should ensure its wellbeing.
    • Freedom of speech and expression is a complex right as it may be subject to reasonable restrictions and it is not absolute and carries with it special duties and responsibilities.

    Daily Mains Practice Question 

    [Q] What is the Constitutionality of the blocking orders for specific content on social media in the context of India ?Signify the requirement of a robust regulatory framework for online information spaces.