About the author:
Torsha Sarkar is a lawyer-by-training, and at the Centre for Internet and Society, she focuses on issues of social media regulation, intermediary liability and freedom of expression. She is interested in the application of constitutional law doctrines to digital spaces, and exploring alternative modes of internet regulation.
On April 8, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), vacated the judgment of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Knight First Amendment Institute v Trump. In that case, the Court of Appeals had prevented Donald Trump, then-POTUS, from blocking his critics from his Twitter account on the ground that such action amounted to the erosion of constitutional rights of his critics. The Court of Appeals had held that his use of @realDonaldTrump in his official capacity had transformed the nature of the account from private to public, and therefore, blocking users he disagreed with amounted to viewpoint discrimination, something that was incompatible with the First Amendment.
The SCOTUS ordered the case to be dismissed as moot, on account of Trump no longer being in office. Justice Clarence Thomas issued a ten-page concurrence that went into additional depth regarding the nature of social media platforms and user rights. It must be noted that the concurrence does not hold any direct precedential weightage, since Justice Thomas was not joined by any of his colleagues at the bench for the opinion. However, given that similar questions of public import are currently being deliberated in the ongoing Sanjay Hegde litigation in the Delhi High Court, Justice Thomas’ concurrence might hold some persuasive weightage in India. While the facts of these litigations might be starkly different, both of them are nevertheless characterized by important questions of applying constitutional doctrines to private parties like Twitter and the supposedly ‘public’ nature of social media platforms.
In this essay, we consider the legal questions raised in the opinion as possible learnings for India. In the first part, we analyze the key points raised by Justice Thomas vis-a-vis the American legal position on intermediary liability and freedom of speech. In the second part, we apply these deliberations to the Sanjay Hegde litigation, as a case-study and a roadmap for future legal jurisprudence to be developed.
A flawed analogy
At the outset, let us briefly refresh the timeline of Trump’s tryst with Twitter, and the history of this litigation: the Court of Appeals decision was issued in 2019, when Trump was still in office. After the November 2020 Presidential Election, where he was voted out, his supporters broke into Capitol Hill. Much of the blame for the attack was pinned on Trump’s use of social media channels (including Twitter) to instigate the violence and following this, Twitter suspended his account permanently.
It is this final fact that seized Justice Thomas’ reasoning. He noted that a private party like Twitter’s power to do away with Trump’s account altogether was at odds with the Court of Appeals’ earlier finding about the public nature of the account. He deployed a hotel analogy to justify this: government officials renting a hotel room for a public hearing on regulation could not kick out a dissenter, but if the same officials gather informally in the hotel lounge, then they would be within their rights to ask the hotel to kick out a heckler. The difference in the two situations would be that, “the government controls the space in the first scenario, the hotel, in the latter.” He noted that Twitter’s conduct was similar to the second situation, where it “control(s) the avenues for speech”. Accordingly, he dismissed the idea that the original respondents (the users whose accounts were blocked) had any First Amendment claims against Trump’s initial blocking action, since the ultimate control of the ‘avenue’ was with Twitter and not Trump.
In the facts of the case however, this analogy was not justified. The Court of Appeals was not concerned with the question of private ‘control’ of entire social media spaces, and given the timeline of the litigation, it was impossible for them to pre-empt such considerations within the judgment. In fact, the only takeaway from the original decision had been that an elected representative’s utilization of his social media account for official purposes transformed only that particular space into a public forum where constitutional rights would find applicability. In delving into questions of ‘control’ and ‘avenues of speech’, issues that had been previously unexplored, Justice Thomas conflates a rather specific point into a much bigger, general conundrum. Further deliberations in the concurrence are accordingly put forward upon this flawed premise.
Right to exclusion (and must carry claims)
From here, Justice Thomas identified the problem to be “private, concentrated control over online content and platforms available to the public”, and brought forth two alternate regulatory systems — common carrier and public accommodation — to argue for ‘equal access’ over social media space. He posited that successful application of either of the two analogies would effectively restrict a social media platform’s right to exclude its users, and “an answer may arise for dissatisfied platform users who would appreciate not being blocked”. Essentially, this would mean that platforms would be obligated to carry all forms of (presumably) legal speech, and users would be entitled to sue platforms in case they feel their content has been unfairly taken down, a phenomenon Daphne Keller describes as ‘must carry claims’.
Again, this is a strange place to find the argument to proceed, since the original facts of the case were not about ‘dissatisfied platform users’, but an elected representative’s account being used in dissemination of official information. Beyond the initial ‘private’ control deliberation, Justice Thomas did not seem interested in exploring this original legal position, and instead emphasized on analogizing social media platforms in order to enforce ‘equal access’, finally arriving at a position that would be legally untenable in the USA.
The American law on intermediary liability, as embodied in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), has two key components: first, intermediaries are protected against the contents posted by its users, under a legal model termed as ‘broad immunity’, and second, an intermediary does not stand to lose its immunity if it chooses to moderate and remove speech it finds objectionable- popularly known as the Good Samaritan protection. It is the effect of these two components, combined, that allows platforms to take calls on what to remove and what to keep, translating into a ‘right to exclusion’. Legally compelling them to carry speech, under the garb of ‘access’ would therefore strike at the heart of the protection granted by the CDA.
Learnings for India
In his petition to the Delhi High Court, Senior Supreme Court Advocate, Sanjay Hegde had contested that the suspension of his Twitter account, on the grounds of him sharing anti-authoritarian imagery, was arbitrary and that:
Twitter was carrying out a public function and would be therefore amenable to writ jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution; and
The suspension of his account had amounted to a violation of his right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) and his rights to assembly and association under Article 19(1)(b) and 19(1)(c); and
The government has a positive obligation to ensure that any censorship on social media platforms is done in accordance with Article 19(2).
The first two prongs of the original petition are perhaps easily disputed: as previous commentary has pointed out, existing Indian constitutional jurisprudence on ‘public function’ does not implicate Twitter, and accordingly, it would be a difficult to make out a case that account suspensions, no matter how arbitrary, would amount to a violation of the user’s fundamental rights. It is the third contention that requires some additional insight in the context of our previous discussion.
Does the Indian legal system support a right to exclusion
Suing Twitter to reinstate a suspended account on the ground that such suspension was arbitrary and illegal, is in its essence a request to limit Twitter’s right to exclude its users. The petition serves as an example of a must-carry claim in the Indian context and vindicates Justice Thomas’ (misplaced) defence of ‘dissatisfied platform users’. Legally, such claims perhaps have a better chance of succeeding here, since the expansive protection granted to intermediaries via Section 230 of the CDA is noticeably absent in India. Instead, intermediaries are bound by conditional immunity, where availing a ‘safe harbour’, i.e., exemption from liability, is contingent on fulfilment of statutory conditions. These conditions are mentioned under section 79 of the Information Technology (IT) Act and the rules made thereunder. Interestingly, in his opinion, Justice Thomas had briefly visited a situation where the immunity under Section 230 was made conditional: to gain Good Samaritan protection, platforms might be induced to ensure specific conditions, including ‘non-discrimination’. This is controversial (and as commentators have noted, wrong), since it had the potential to whittle down the US' ‘broad immunity’ model of intermediary liability to a system that would resemble the Indian one.
It is worth noting that in the newly issued Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, the proviso to Rule 3(1)(d) allows for “the removal or disabling of access to any information, data or communication link [...] under clause (b) on a voluntary basis, or on the basis of grievances received under sub-rule (2) [...]” without dilution of statutory immunity. This does provide intermediaries a right to exclude, albeit limited, since its scope is restricted to content removed under the operation of specific sub-clauses within the rules. Its limited nature is appreciated if one contrasts Rule 3(1)(d) with Section 230, which is couched in more general terms. Of course, none of this precludes the government from further prescribing obligations similar to those prayed in the petition.
On the other hand, it is a difficult proposition to support that Twitter’s right to exclusion should be circumscribed by the Constitution, as prayed. In the petition, this argument is built over the judgment in Shreya Singhal v Union of India, where it was held that takedowns under section 79 are to be done only on receipt of a court order or a government notification, and that the scope of the order would be restricted to Article 19(2). This, in his opinion, meant that “any suo-motu takedown of material by intermediaries must conform to Article 19(2)”.
To understand why this argument does not work, it is important to consider the context in which the Shreya Singhal judgment was issued. Previously, intermediary liability was governed by the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 issued under section 79 of the IT Act. Rule 3(4) made provisions for sending takedown orders to the intermediary, and the prerogative to send such orders was on ‘an affected person’. On receipt of these orders, the intermediary was bound to remove content and neither the intermediary nor the user whose content was being censored had the opportunity to dispute the takedown.
As a result, the potential for misuse was wide-open. Rishabh Dara’s research provided empirical evidence for this; intermediaries were found to act on flawed takedown orders, on the apprehension of being sanctioned under the law, essentially chilling free expression online. The Shreya Singhal judgment, in essence, reined in this misuse by stating that an intermediary is legally obliged to act only when a takedown order is sent by the government or the court. The intent of this was, in the court’s words: “it would be very difficult for intermediaries [...] to act when millions of requests are made and the intermediary is then to judge as to which of such requests are legitimate and which are not.”
In light of this, if Hegde’s petition succeeds, it would mean that intermediaries would now be obligated to subsume the entirety of Article 19(2) jurisprudence in their decision-making, interpret and apply it perfectly, and be open to petitions from users when they fail to do so. This might be a startling undoing of the court’s original intent in Shreya Singhal. Such a reading also means limiting an intermediary’s prerogative to remove speech that may not necessarily fall within the scope of Article 19(2), but is still systematically problematic, such as unsolicited commercial communications. Further, most platforms today are dealing with an unprecedented spread and consumption of harmful, misleading information. Limiting their right to exclude speech in this manner, we might be exacerbating this problem.
Government-controlled spaces on social media platforms
On the other hand, the original finding of the Court of Appeals regarding the public nature of an elected representative’s social media account and First Amendment rights of the people to access such an account, might yet still prove instructive for India. While the primary SCOTUS order erases the precedential weight of the original case, there have been similar judgments issued by other courts in the USA, including by the Fourth Circuit court and as a result of a lawsuit against a Texas Attorney General.
A similar situation can be envisaged in India as well. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that Article 19(1)(a) encompasses not just the right to disseminate information, but also the right to receive information, including receiving information on matters of public concern. Additionally, in Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting v Cricket Association of Bengal, the Court had held that the right of dissemination included the right of communication through any media: print, electronic or audio-visual. Then, if we assume that government-controlled spaces on social media platforms, used in dissemination of official functions, are ‘public spaces’, then the government’s denial of public access to such spaces can be construed to be a violation of Article 19(1)(a).
As indicated earlier, despite the facts of the two litigations being different, the legal questions embodied within converge startlingly, inasmuch that are both examples of the growing discontent around the power wielded by social media platforms, and the flawed attempts at controlling it.
While the above discussion might throw some light on the relationship between an individual, the state and social media platforms, many questions still continue to remain unanswered. For instance, once we establish that users have a fundamental right to access certain spaces within the social media platform, then does the platform have a right to remove that space altogether? If it does so, can a constitutional remedy be made against the platform? Initial commentary on the Court of Appeals’ decision had contested that the takeaway from that judgment had been that constitutional norms had a primacy over the platform’s own norms of governance. In such light, would the platform be constitutionally obligated to not suspend a government account, even if the content on such an account continues to be harmful, in violation of its own moderation standards?
This is an incredibly tricky dimension of the law, made trickier still by the dynamic nature of the platforms, the intense political interests permeating the need for governance, and the impacts on users in the instance of a flawed solution. Continuous engagement, scholarship and emphasis on having a human rights-respecting framework underpinning the regulatory system are the only ways forward.