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It’s Twitter versus the government again. It has escalated and we must pay attention to this tussle over our common spaces online. Last week, the microblog platform moved the Karnataka high court, asking it to overturn government orders to block tweets and handles. Twitter has argued that the Centre’s demands are arbitrary and aimed at speech protected by Indian law; and complying with them would violate the right to free speech of its users. It is not the first platform to ask for judicial review. Last year, WhatsApp went to court against internet rules that demand it break end-to-end encryption, a challenge that’s still pending. The Centre insists that foreign companies with operations in India must follow Indian law. Under the Information Technology Rules, 2021, the chief compliance officer of a social media platform is criminally liable if it refuses official orders.

The paradox of the confrontation is this: such platforms now constitute our public square but are owned by overseas corporate entities. Unlike democratic governments, they are not accountable to citizens, only their shareholders and regulators, but wield power over our mindscapes. Their opaque algorithms and role in enabling fake news have come under scrutiny. As decisions taken by closely-held foreign firms cannot always serve our collective interest, sovereign administrations are justified in pressing for oversight of these platforms. But this should not blind us to the will shown by political agents to control the online sphere, even to the extent of compromising basic freedoms. A propensity has turned into zeal. An analysis by The Indian Express of Twitter’s global transparency reports shows that takedown demands in India soared 48,000% between 2014 and 2019. The government stated in Parliament that content blocking orders to social media companies went up nearly 2,000% in that period. Typically issued under Section 69(A) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, these orders often come wrapped in layers of secrecy; users aren’t informed or given prior notice, let alone an explanation of why their post was dropped. Last year, Twitter had to knock off plenty flagged as provocative by the Centre, including tweets critical of its covid response and posts related to farm protests. Recent tweets by journalists, activists and even a think-tank got censored by Twitter on central orders. This is worrying, especially in a climate of hyper-vigilance and political prickliness over online criticism. The arrest of an AltNews co-founder for a tweet is but one among many examples of stiff action following a post, slogan or imaginary toolkit. While extant laws must apply, the limits of free speech need to be judiciously determined. Last year’s IT rules were stayed by courts because these over-empowered the executive. But too much still gets muzzled by diktat.

Between corporate interest and political overreach, who will defend our freedom? The judiciary, as the guardian of our Constitution, must step in. It must hold both social media and the government to democratic principles. Voices of dissent that don’t incite violence must be shielded. Since what speech endangers lives can be a close call in some cases, the country needs to hear from judges rather than cops on what is broadly legitimate. A massive chunk of our population now has an online life with a stake in a free and open Digital India. People need clarity on liberties. It’s for the legal system to install a firewall that’ll safeguard our common spaces from violations of Article 19(1)(a).

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