There has been a significant rise in the incidents of arbitrary censorship of online speech in the recent past be it the Twitter accounts being blocked ostensibly for “national interests” in the wake of the farmers’ protests, or the suspension of Instagram and Twitter accounts providing Covid-19 related information on the pretext of combating “fake news”. We are frequently approached by users of various social media platforms, asking what can be done if one’s account is blocked. We have prepared a step by step explainer to navigate situations of arbitrary account blockings and to gear you up in the fight to protect our freedom of speech and expression.
Free Speech is a constitutional guarantee we all are entitled to as citizens of a democratic state. However, this is not an absolute right. While Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution recognizes that freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right for every Indian citizen, Article 19(2) limits this right to “reasonable restrictions”. It is this vague verbiage that has often fuelled overbroad state interferences on free speech and arbitrary gag orders in the pretext of safeguarding “national interest.” In recent times, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp have emerged as the most common portal for mobilising the opinions and views of a diverse demography all over the world. Yet, we are witnessing an unprecedented scale of clampdowns on social media where arbitrary censorship of online speech is increasingly being directed against any voice of dissent. Twitter officials state that they have observed a steep rise in the orders passed by the government directing them to block specific accounts on their platform over the past year. From an estimated 3600 in all of 2019 to 9800 in 2020 to almost 6000 within the first six months of 2021, the government takedown orders to Twitter have more than doubled in the recent past with orders being largely arbitrary and discriminatory.
In March 2021, in response to an RTI application filed by Internet Freedom Foundation, the Department of Telecommunications informed us that “94 blocking orders were issued by DoT during 2020 & 2021 pursuant to orders of different Hon'ble courts and 3725 website/URL blocked or access disabled pursuant to these orders.” This is extremely worrying since social media platforms have penetrated almost every facet of our lives. Excessive and arbitrary restrictions on online speech under the garb of combating the spread of “fake news” and misinformation ends up causing a “chilling effect” on free speech which then undermines the values upheld by the Supreme Court of India in Shreya Singhal V. Union of India (2015) 5 SCC 1.
Further, even social media platforms are guilty of arbitrary account blockings purportedly as per the standards set out in their respective policies and guidelines but they largely lack accountability and transparency as upheld by the Santa Clara Principles.
When can your accounts be blocked?
Online content may be abridged or access disabled according to the legal provisions and internal policies of social media platforms as discussed below:
- Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 allows the Central Government to issue directions to any network provider to block public access to any content online when it is satisfied with the necessity of such an order.
- Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking For Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 delineate the process and powers of the Central Government to direct social media platforms to block specific online content.
- Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 obligates social media platforms to remove within thirty six hours any given information from their “computer resources” upon receiving such directions from any government agencies or orders from any competent court. On account of non-compliance, social media platforms stand to lose their “safety harbour” against criminal liability that section 79 of the Information Technology Act confers upon them.
- Privacy policies and Community Guidelines of the respective social media platforms list down specific instances wherein they disable access to accounts or remove content if any violation is reported. While the particular instances may differ for different social media platforms, the broad categories revolve around potential harms to the human rights of the users.
What can you do if your account is blocked?
Twitter: If your account is blocked or you receive a warning notice regarding any blocking orders, you can write to Twitter’s designated officer indicating your grievance. Under the IT Rules, 2021 Twitter is bound to acknowledge your grievance within 24 hours, and take action on it in 15 days. In the event that no such communication has been corresponded to you, you may raise your grievance by filling out this form.
Facebook: Facebook’s policies reveal that they preserve some of the user information for the purposes of compliance with requests and orders from law enforcement bodies as per their standard protocols. This becomes difficult to trace as not always are notices issued to the user. However, Facebook enables users to directly get in touch with the grievance redressal team to report or resolve an issue through its help centre. You may also raise your grievance directly with the resident grievance officer in India.
Instagram: Instagram enables you to raise a complaint through an in-app redressal centre, in the event of your account being blocked or content restricted. If no action is initiated upon your complaint within the stipulated time under the IT Rules 2021, you may raise your grievance with the resident grievance officer in India.
Youtube: Youtube facilitates users to raise a complaint with the reporting and intelligence desk through these webforms. You may also raise your grievance with Google, Youtube’s parent company’s resident team in India.
What legal recourse should you take in case your grievances are not resolved by the social media platform?
The IT Rules 2021 mandates that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube et al. must respond to any grievance that you raise within 24 hours of receiving a complaint and resolve the issue within 15 days. However, on the account of the vague and arbitrary grounds for account blockings, the process of grievance redressal does get delayed. In that case, you may also file a RTI application with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting through the online portal, seeking information regarding why your account has been restricted. You may also choose to send a legal notice to the platforms challenging the blocking and demanding your account be restored without delay.
With the mission to safeguard your digital freedom, IFF supports users to resolve issues of account blocking in a twofold manner:
- Public transparency capacity: We assist in filing RTI applications, drafting and sending legal notices and representations to the concerned authorities to probe into the nature of account blocking and advocate for safeguarding the digital rights of our community.
- Strategic Litigation: IFF through its team of lawyers and pro-bono counsels provide direct litigation support to litigants challenging arbitrary blocking and censorship of free speech in various courts in India.