TOP SECRET: MeitY Denies Information of Blocked Twitter Accounts in the Aftermath of Internet Shutdown in Punjab #WhatTheBlock

MeitY has refused the disclosure of the list of Twitter accounts it directed to be blocked, the copies of its orders u/s 69A, and the material based on which it issued blocking directions in the aftermath of Punjab’s internet shutdown in March 2023.

05 May, 2023
4 min read

Tl;dr

IFF has received MeitY’s response to its RTI concerning the withholding of Twitter accounts and blocking of tweets in the aftermath of the state-wide internet shutdown in Punjab in March 2023. In its response, MeitY admitted to issuing “various blocking directions” to Twitter that month, but has refused to furnish copies of those directions, the material that led it to issue those directions, and information of the Review Committee’s meetings. It has stated that this information pertains, inter alia, to the “sovereignty and integrity of India”, whose disclosure is exempt under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. It has also claimed an overall requirement of confidentiality under Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (“Blocking Rules, 2009”).

The MeitY’s Blocking Orders

In March 2023, in the wake of an internet shutdown in Punjab, several orders blocking access to Twitter accounts and Tweets were issued by MeitY. Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, was invoked, which empowers the Central Government to direct intermediaries (such as Twitter) to block any online information from being publicly viewed.

The procedure for issuing a blocking order has been provided in the Blocking Rules, 2009, whose constitutionality was deliberated in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India. The Supreme Court observed that an opportunity for hearing was to be granted to both the intermediary and the originator of the impugned information before a blocking order was issued (Para 115).

Further, the Supreme Court also mandated that the blocking orders be “recorded in writing… so that [they] may be assailed in a writ petition” (para 114). In addition, the Blocking Rules, 2009 mandate the constitution of a Review Committee, which reviews blocking orders issued by the MeitY. Our RTI enquired into MeitY’s compliance with these procedural safeguards in its blocking of Twitter accounts in March 2023.

Our RTI

In our RTI dated March 30, 2023, we sought information relating to the list of Twitter accounts blocked by MeitY after March 16, 2023 in the aftermath of Punjab’s internet shutdown. We also sought copies of the blocking orders, information of the Review Committee’s consultations after the orders were issued, and a list of tweets published from individual accounts that had been blocked by MeitY.

The Government’s Response

In its response dated April 20, 2023, MeitY has admitted to having issued “various blocking directions to Twitter under section 69A of The Information Technology Act, 2000 since 16.03.2023”, and has stated that the Review Committee “has reviewed all the blocking requests as per procedure defined in the said Rules”. It has, however, refused to disclose the list of Twitter accounts blocked, copies of the blocking orders, and information of the Review Committee’s meetings on the ground that the information pertains to the “sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of Nation, relation with foreign State” which is exempt from disclosure under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005. It has also relied on Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009, citing strict confidentiality requirements.

Systemic Opacity Furthers a Lack of Accountability

MeitY’s refusal to disclose information concerning blocking orders is characteristic of systemic unaccountability, arbitrariness and impunity in depriving persons of free speech. BBC Punjabi, a news channel, was one among the withheld accounts, demonstrating the looming possibility of press censorship through such secretive orders.

Further, MeitY’s refusal to disclose information under Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009 is based on an incorrect interpretation of the Supreme Court’s observations in Shreya Singhal, which has been highlighted by IFF previously. Failure to publish blocking orders deprives those who are affected by such orders from assailing the same; this renders the orders highly susceptible to arbitrariness.

MeitY consistently relies upon confidentiality requirement under Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, 2009 to deny access to such blocking orders. Blocking these accounts, especially those belonging to media organizations like BBC Punjabi, not only undermines transparency but also violates the constitutional guarantee to free speech, including citizens’ right to know.

Important Documents

  1. IFF’s RTI dated March 30, 2023 requesting information of the list of blocked Twitter accounts, copies of blocking orders, and information of the Review Committee’s meetings (link)
  2. MeitY’s response dated May 20, 2023, denying disclosure on security-related grounds (link)
  3. IFF’s previous blogpost dated August 30, 2021 on the arbitrary blocking of Sushant Singh’s Twitter account (link)
  4. IFF’s coverage of the blockage of 250 Twitter accounts in connection to the farmer protests (link)
  5. IFF's letter to MeitY regarding 'Secretive and disproportionate directions issued to Twitter under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000' (link)

(This post was drafted by litigation intern Kartik Kalra and reviewed by IFF staffer Tanmay Singh)

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