New Delhi: The Union government issued over 3,417 orders to block Twitter URLs in 2022 – up from a mere eight times in 2014, when the Narendra Modi-led government came to power, data accessed through Right to Information (RTI) requests showed.
This trend, according to RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak, who obtained the data, indicates either an increase in the abuse of such platforms or growing “sensitivity of the Union government towards the views and opinions which are not in line with its own thinking” or both.
Earlier, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s central public information officer (CPIO) had rejected a request to publish the proceedings of the inter-departmental committee which issues directions to block content on social and digital media platforms under the IT Rules, 2021.
The CPIO claimed ‘confidentiality’ for the proceedings of the review committee and rejected a request to publish them under the RTI Act, 2005. However, after a delay of 40 days, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology’s CPIO responded to some of the queries.
It said that the committee constituted under Rule 7 to examine requests/complaints for blocking access to information met 39 times in 2021 and 53 times in 2022.
A manifold increase in blocking orders
An analysis of the RTI data showed that MeitY had issued 1,385 blocking orders to Twitter and other social and digital media platforms in 2017, which increased to 9,849 orders in 2020 – the year the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Nayak had filed multiple RTI applications with MeitY and the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats on the issue.
“In 2021, orders for blocking Twitter URLs were issued in 2,851 cases, and in 1,122 cases up to June 2022,” he said while analysing the figures tabled by MeitY in the Lok Sabha on July 27, 2022 and Rajya Sabha on July 29, 2022.
According to the data tabled in the Rajya Sabha on March 25, 2022, MeitY said that a total of 6,096 URLs (Twitter and others) were directed to be blocked in 2021. As of the date of reply, 1,264 blocking orders were issued in 2022.
Between January 1, 2021 and December 31, 2022, the committee constituted under Rule 7 issued a total of 6,268 blocking orders of Twitter URLs, the RTI report said.
Therefore, Nayak said, in 2021, according to the data tabled in parliament, 2,851 Twitter URLs were directed to be blocked. So in 2022, the number of Twitter URLs blocked will be 3,417 (i.e., 6,268 minus 2,851). This is a 19.85% increase from the 2021 figures.
The report said that a total number of 6,096 URLs were blocked in 2021 and 6,775 in 2022 which included all types of URLs such as webpages, websites, specific pages on social media platforms, etc.
So, as per Nayak’s analysis, in 2021, social and digital media content on platforms other than Twitter was blocked in 3,245 cases (i.e., 6,096 minus 2,851). And, in 2022, this figure was 3,358 (i.e., 6,775 minus 3,417). This is a 3.48% increase in the number of blocking orders from 2021.
The procedure followed for issuing blocking orders
On the procedure adopted for blocking content, the CPIO said, in response to the RTI queries, that all recommendations made by the committee in 2021 and 2022 for blocking public access to information were put up for the approval of the secretary, MeitY, and his approval was obtained, on file, for all of them. The CPIO also replied that MeitY does not maintain date-wise information about these matters.
According to Nayak, MeitY refused to share the materials placed before the said committee. It also refused to share information on the committee’s proceedings, and also those [materials] of the committee which reviews such directions, citing a ‘confidentiality’ clause in the Information Technology (Procedures and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (2009 Blocking Rules).
He added that claiming a fiduciary relationship, MeitY also refused to publicly disclose the papers relating to a case in which the blocking orders against some tweets is currently being heard by the Karnataka high court, behind closed doors. In this regard, the CPIO’s response on January 24 said: “[The] Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has a fiduciary relationship hence the requested information cannot be shared.”
Blocking Rules were tabled, but not selected by the House panel for scrutiny
Nayak had also asked the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats about the status of the 2009 Blocking Rules which were tabled in both Houses of parliament as required under Section 87(3) of the IT Act.
“The 2009 Blocking Rules were tabled in both Houses of parliament as required under Section 87(3) of the IT Act. However, the CPIOs of the secretariats of both Houses of parliament stated that the Rules were never taken up by the respective Committees on Subordinate Legislation for detailed scrutiny,” the RTI findings showed.
In this regard, the Lok Sabha Secretariat said that “the Information Technology (Procedure for Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 published in Notification No. G.S.R. 781(E) in Gazette of India dated 27th October, 2009, was laid on the Table of Lok Sabha on 14.12.2009.”
It added that “the Committee on Subordinate Legislation of the Lok Sabha did not select the Information Technology (Procedure for Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 for scrutiny” and that “no report was drafted and presented by the Committee on the said Rules.”
Interestingly, the secretariat said it could not trace the date of laying of the notification and added that “it seems that the concerned Ministry, i.e. the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, have not forwarded the said notification for laying on the Table of the House within a period of 15 days of its publication in the official gazette.”