Centre rejects RTI about blocking Caravan’s Twitter account citing national security

The public-information officer and first appellate authority under the ministry of electronics and information technology have both denied right-to-information requests about the order to block The Caravan's Twitter account citing the national-security clause of the RTI Act. ILLUSTRATION BY SHAGNIK CHAKRABORTY
07 July, 2021

The ministry of electronics and information technology has denied a right-to-information application seeking information about MEITY’s order to block The Caravan’s Twitter account in January this year. The ministry cited a threat to India’s security, sovereignty and integrity if the information is released in the public domain. The ministry’s first appellate authority cited the same ground to dismiss an appeal against the decision to withhold the information. It remains unclear how the Twitter account of a national media organisation compromised India’s security, sovereignty or integrity.

On 30 April 2021, I filed an RTI before MEITY requesting a list of all usernames and hashtags that the central government had directed Twitter to block. Three months earlier, on 31 January, MEITY had passed an order to block 257 links on Twitter, including tweets and accounts, and one hashtag—“#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide.” MEITY claimed that these links were “spreading misinformation about protests and has the potential to lead to imminent violence affecting public order situation in the country.” The Caravan had not ever used the hashtag in question. Given the lack of transparency on the issue, it is unknown how many of the other 256 links had used the hashtag.

On 1 February, the news agency ANI quoted unnamed “sources” to state that MEITY had issued the blocking order “on the request of the Ministry of Home Affairs and law enforcement agencies to prevent any escalation of law and order in view of the on-going farmer agitation.” In the preceding week, The Caravan had reported on the death of the farmer Navreet Singh during the tractors rally in Delhi. Eyewitnesses to his death, family members, and forensic experts who studied the post-mortem report had told The Caravan that Navreet had been shot dead, while the Delhi Police claimed he had died by accident, while speeding on his tractor. In the days after Navreet’s death, police in different Indian states registered FIRs against several journalists that reported on his case, including The Caravan’s editors and owner, accusing them of offences such as sedition and promoting enmity.

MEITY had issued the order under Rule 9 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009, which lays down the procedure for “blocking of information in cases of emergency.” As per the rules, a designated officer of the central government is permitted to issue orders for blocking information without providing the intermediary platform—Twitter, in this instance—an opportunity to be heard. The rules further state that after the blocking order is issued, it must be considered within 48 hours by a committee comprising representatives of the home ministry, the law ministry, and the information and broadcasting ministry.

In its 31 January order, MEITY had directed Twitter to block the 257 links under Rule 9, and scheduled a meeting with the committee on the next day, at 3 pm. Twitter only complied with the government order on the next day, shortly before the committee meeting. In the meeting, Twitter submitted its response to the notice, stating that it would not be complying with the order because it concerned “significant issues relating to freedom of speech.” In its response, Twitter also pointed out that there was “insufficient justification” to block accounts in entirety. By the evening of 1 February, Twitter had withdrawn the blocking order.

The next day, MEITY issued a notice to Twitter for non-compliance of its previous order, a copy of which is in the possession of The Caravan. According to the non-compliance notice, the government argued that the purpose of such orders was not merely to punish the offending Twitter accounts, but to prevent them from posting such tweets in the future. The ministry stated that blocking specific tweets “would simply not achieve the intended goal as the handles would designedly mix provocative tweets / illegal contents with normal content.” It also noted, “There exists no statutory requirement to provide or demonstrate justifications or material to the intermediary while passing orders … or to justify the proportionality of such orders to any intermediary.”

In the RTI application, I also requested MEITY to provide a copy of the file notings and records of deliberations and orders in relation to blocking these Twitter links. These included handles such as the farmers’ groups Kisan Ekta Morcha (@kisanektamorcha) and Tractor to Twitter (@tractor2twitr), and the tribal activist Hansraj Meena (@hansrajmeena), in addition to The Caravan (@thecaravanindia). With the lack of transparency both in its correspondence with Twitter and in response to the RTI application, it is unclear what illegal content had been posted by The Caravan. The only common thread connecting these accounts was that nearly all of them had been posting updates and opinions on the farmers’ protests regularly.

The RTI was rejected on the grounds that The Caravan's Twitter account was blocked under Section 69 of the IT Act, which concerns issues related to national security, sovereignty and integrity, and which are similar to the exemptions from disclosure under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act.

Gaurav Gupta, the central public-information officer, responded to the RTI on 19 May this year. He noted that the blocking order was issued under the 2009 Blocking Rules, which in turns provides the framework for Section 69A of the Information Technology Act of 2000. Section 69A allows the central government to block public access to information if it is considered necessary in the interest of national security, sovereignty and integrity of India, and public order, among others. Gupta stated in the RTI response, “As section 69A of The Information Technology Act, 2000 and its matters are related to National Security, sovereignty & integrity, it also attracts provisions of 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act 2005. Hence, the information is exempted.”

Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act states, “The public authority is not under obligation to furnish the information disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, relation with foreign state or lead to incitement of an offence.” Gupta also cited Rule 16 of the 2009 Blocking Rules, which states that requests and complaints are to be kept confidential. However, the rules do not specifically exclude the applicability of the RTI Act, and Section 22 of the Act states that its provisions would override those of other laws. The digital-rights advocacy group Software Freedom Law Centre has successfully used the same argument about Section 22 of the RTI Act during a first appeal, while seeking information related to websites blocked under Section 69A of the IT Act.

On the same day I received the response, I filed an appeal against the CPIO’s decision, and also filed another RTI specifically requesting MEITY to provide its complete internal correspondence with respect to The Caravan and Twitter. The appeal and the RTI were both once again denied citing Rule 16 of the Blocking Rules, Section 69A of the IT Act and Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act.

I discussed MEITY’s responses to the RTIs with Anushka Jain, an associate counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, a non-profit that undertakes legal advocacy and judicial campaigns to defend online freedom, privacy and net neutrality in India. “As per the Rule 16 of IT Act, the confidentiality is to be maintained regarding the complaints received by MEITY against any content on the internet,” Jain explained. “However, MEITY seems to have misinterpreted this rule by blocking the orders and instructions passed by it on the said complaint. Only complaints are confidential, not the order or instructions issued. Further, Section 69A of the IT act empowers the government to block certain content on the internet, however it does not empower the government to refuse to share the blocking orders under the RTI Act.” (Disclosure: Internet Freedom Foundation is assisting me in drafting and filing my second appeal against the first appellate authority.)

Section 8(1)(a) has previously been used by the Narendra Modi government to deny RTI requests about controversial decisions during his tenure. After the Modi government demonetised high-value currency notes in November 2018, the Reserve Bank of India refused to entertain the RTI requests citing the same provision. The central government also rejected an RTI about its decisions on the COVID-19 vaccine-pricing policy claiming that revealing the information “may prejudicially affect the strategic, scientific and economic interests of the State.” 

In addition to that particular provision of the act, the central government has also used the provision exempting the disclosure of information held in a fiduciary capacity to deny information about Modi’s college degree. The Indian Air Force has used the same provision to reject requests for information about the controversial purchase of Rafale fighter jets. The central government has even defied an order by the chief information commissioner and overridden the decision of the quasi-judicial body by refusing to share information about black money brought back from abroad. Moreover, in 2019, the BJP-led central government has also introduced new rules under the RTI Act that limited the independence of RTI bodies and empowered the centre to decide on the salaries and tenures of information commissioners.

In its response to MEITY’s blocking order, Twitter had also raised concerns about the restriction on the freedom of press. In MEITY’s non-compliance notice, the ministry stated that while the freedom of press was an “undeniable … part of fundamental rights,” it did not include “freedom to spread misinformation, cause instigation of people and create a public order situation.” Yet, neither its communication to Twitter nor its RTI responses provide any clarity on the basis on which MEITY sought to justify curbing the freedom of press.