Karnataka HC refuses to permit an impacted user to intervene in Twitter’s Petition against censorship orders

Tl;dr

Mr. Aakar Patel, a human rights activist and author, approached the Karnataka High Court seeking permission to intervene in an ongoing petition filed by Twitter challenging blocking orders issued by Union of India under S.69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (‘IT Act, 2000). Mr. Patel, whose Twitter Account was blocked in June 2020, approached the Court to highlight how the Government of India is censoring Twitter accounts without even hearing affected users or providing them copies of blocking orders. The Karnataka High Court declined to permit Mr. Patel to intervene because other users would also approach the Court in a dispute which is between Twitter and the Union of India. Senior Advocate V Srinivasa Raghavan appeared on behalf of Mr. Patel and Keystone Partners, and IFF provided legal support.

Why should you care?

Karnataka High Court is currently hearing arguments in the petition filed by Twitter. This case could have far-reaching ramifications on digital rights; Twitter has contended that the Union Government cannot engage in account bans under S.69A and should only censor posts which offend the law and that the Union Government has been issuing blocking orders without hearing users whose accounts / posts have been blocked. Both these issues directly impact Twitter users, but they are not represented in these proceedings. Therefore, it was extremely important for a user such as Mr. Patel to be heard as the Court decided these important issues.

The blocking and unblocking of Mr. Patel’s Twitter Account

Mr. Patel is a human rights activist and author. He is presently the Chair of Amnesty International, India. He has worked as the Editor-in-Chief of Mid Day Multimedia Ltd., and as Deputy Editor at Deccan Chronicle and Dorling Kindersley. He also served as the head of Amnesty International, India from 2015 to 2019. He has been an active user of Twitter since September 2015 using the handle, ‘@Aakar__Patel’, which has over 92,000 followers. He uses the account for various purposes including but not limited to performing his duties as a journalist and public intellectual and communicating his opinions on censorship, bigotry and violence against minority communities.

On 11.06.2020, Mr. Patel received an email from Twitter which stated that Twitter had received a ‘legal removal demand’ with respect to the Twitter account @Aakar__Patel. The email claimed that the account had violated the laws of India but did not specify which laws were violated.  It also stated that because of the demand, the account was being withheld in India but would be available elsewhere. The same email also disclaimed that Twitter was prohibited from disclosing who submitted the legal demand.

Mr. Patel was extremely unsettled because of the email and the blocking of his account. During COVID-19, especially during the lockdown, Twitter was one of the only ways he could perform his responsibilities as a journalist and an activist. As a result of the blocking, he could not communicate with users in India, and they could not access any of the information that he had posted since September 2015. When users from India visited his account, the website stated “@Aakar__Patel’s account has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand.”

Both the email from Twitter and the message on Twitter’s website strongly indicated that Mr. Patel’s account had been blocked because of an order issued by the Union Government under S.69A of the IT Act, 2000.

On 13.06.2020, Mr. Patel received another email from Twitter which stated that Twitter was no longer withholding his account. Thus, without any change in circumstances and without providing any reasons, Twitter suddenly restored Mr. Patel’s account. This entire ordeal, particularly the opaque manner in which the blocking and the unblocking were carried out, adversely affected Mr. Patel. He was appalled that the Union Government and Twitter could block his account without even granting him a hearing or providing him with a copy of the blocking order.

Mr. Patel’s Intervention Application

In August 2022, Twitter filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court challenging blocking orders issued by the Union Government in February 2021. While Twitter has complied with those orders under protest, it has asked the Court to set them aside as the orders violate freedom of speech and expression, they direct account bans even though S.69A does not permit the government from doing so and were issued without hearing users whose accounts were blocked.

Considering the concerns raised by Twitter directly related to the treatment of its users and because users themselves are not represented in the proceedings before the Karnataka High Court, Mr. Patel filed an intervention application under Order I Rule 8A of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908. In the application, Mr. Patel detailed the blocking of his account in 2020, explained how the Union Government was progressively blocking more Twitter accounts every year and pointed out how he could assist the Court in addressing important questions of law, such as:

  • Is it necessary for the Union Government to grant hearings and copy of blocking orders to users before blocking their accounts / posts?
  • Should blocking orders be set aside if hearings and copies of blocking orders are not provided to the affected users?

Mr. Patel’s intervention application was taken up for hearing on 27.10.2022. Senior Advocate V Srinivasa Raghavan appeared on his behalf and made submissions before the Court. He highlighted how users are not represented in the proceedings initiated by Twitter. Justice Krishna Dixit refused to allow the intervention application. He stated that if Mr. Patel is permitted to intervene, other users would also approach the Court which may not be desirable. A detailed account of the proceedings is available here. A copy of the order is not available currently. We will share once it is available.

This is certainly not a desirable outcome. These proceedings have important implications, as stated above, and the perspective of users such as Mr. Patel is necessary to properly adjudicate the issues involved. While we respect the ruling of the Court, we are exploring legal options. We are also making a copy of the application public since we believe that the application raises important issues relating to government censorship that deserve public examination.

We are grateful to Mr. Patel for trusting us with this important case. We are thankful to Senior Advocate V Srinivasa Raghavan for appearing on behalf of Mr. Patel. He was assisted by Anupama Hebbar (Partner) and Vedanth Chugh (Principal Associate) from Keystone Partners and IFF lawyers including Gautam Bhatia, Vrinda Bhandari, Abhinav Sekhri, Tanmay Singh, and Krishnesh Bapat.

Important Documents

  1. Intervention Application on behalf of Mr. Aakar Patel (link)