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Why the government ordered Twitter to block The Caravan, Kisan Ekta Morcha

Twitter had briefly blocked several handles in February on the government’s orders, amid the 2020–21 farmer protests.

All accounts/URLs blocked by the government are based on the IT Rules 2009 notified under section 69A of the IT Act, the IT ministry said in the Lok Sabha on December 8. The ministry was responding to a question about the reasons for ordering Twitter to block accounts of The Caravan Magazine and Kisan Ekta Morcha in February this year.

Twitter had suspended several accounts on February 1 after receiving a legal notice, but the nature of the notice remained unclear. The IT Ministry’s response yesterday shows how the provisions of the IT Act allow the government to suppress press freedom and dissent online.

Which accounts were blocked in February?

Twitter blocked access to 250 handles, including several prominent accounts. These include:

  • The Caravan Magazine
  • Shashi Shekhar, CEO of Prasar Bharti
  • Kisan Ekta Morcha
  • Tractor2twitr
  • Sanjukta Basu, Political Commentator and Author
  • Sushant Singh, Actor
  • Hansraj Meena, Activist

The blocked accounts were largely anti-government, or in support of the 2020–21 farmer protests. A day after blocking the accounts, Twitter decided to restore them after telling the government that the accounts were ‘newsworthy’. After the unblocking, the government issued a notice to Twitter, warning penal action if the orders were not followed, The News Minute has reported.

For what reasons does Section 69A of the IT Act allow blocking of accounts?

Under Section 69A of the IT Act 2000, the central government can order an intermediary to block access to any information hosted on a computer resource only to protect:

  • the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India,
  • defence of India,
  • security of the State,
  • friendly relations with foreign States
  • public order
  • preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above

It is unclear which of these reasons the government used to order the takedowns of the publications and prominent figures.

Blocking of URLs increased by 270% in 2020

The number of URLs blocked under Section 69A of the IT Act has been steadily increasing since at least 2014:

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“Government has directed for blocking of 471, 500, 633, 1385, 2799, 3635 and 9849 number of Accounts/URLs during the years 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively,” – IT Ministry response

In just 2020, the number of URLs and accounts suspended has increased over 270% from 2019. If measured from 2014, there has been a whopping 2000% increase in the number of blocked accounts. The numbers clearly point towards a rapid increase in censorship and content takedowns in India.

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