Social media posts spreading rumours about FAU-G and its makers, investors or representatives connecting them to late actor Sushant Singh Rajput, will be taken down. A court in Mumbai has issued a “John Doe” order, which requires social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to block any users from posting defamatory content against the makers of the yet-to-be-released video game. FAU-G is developed by nCore Games, which was co-founded by Vishal Gondal, who is also CEO of GOQii.

GOQii and nCore Games filed a defamation suit in the Bombay City Civil Court against “John Doe/Ashok Kumar” — unknown or unidentified persons — who were reportedly posting defamatory content about them and their video game FAU-G on Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, LinkedIn and other social media platforms. The petition claimed that these unknown persons were targeting the two companies on social media by spreading rumours that FAU-G was conceptualised by late actor Sushant Singh Rajput. It said that the defamatory posts, tweets, messages, videos posted on these platforms were causing “irreparable damage” to the companies’ reputation. It even claimed that these “miscreants” may be supported by “certain foreign nationals”.

FAU-G which was announced on September 4, just two days after popular video game PUBG was banned in India.

What did GOQii and nCore Games ask for?

The companies asked the Court for a “permanent injunction” restraining “John Doe/ Ashok Kumar” — the unknown persons — from filing or reposting tweets, posts, messages, videos with defamatory content on various social media platforms, including but not limited to Facebook, Google, Twitter and LinkedIn. They asked for the court to direct the companies to take down, block or restrict access to all such content.

In their petition, GOQii and nCore Games had named six other defendants other than John Doe — Facebook India Online Services Private Limited, Twitter Communications India Private Limited, Facebook Inc (incorporated in the USA, with office in Mumbai), YouTube India (incorporated in the USA, with office in Mumbai), Google India Private Limited and LinkedIn Technology Information Private Limited.

Twitter Communications India had earlier responded to GOQii and nCore Games’ email notices, and had told them that it had no role to play in the operations of the Twitter platform, and that they were handled by its parent organisation headquartered in the USA. The company said it wasn’t the right party to the suit. Google and LinkedIn were represented by their advocates in the Court. YouTube and Facebook were not represented by anyone.

The Court was convinced by the companies’ submissions, and saw fit to grant interim protection to them against “John Doe”. It directed all social media platforms to restrict users posting any defamatory content. YouTube and Facebook were ordered to relay the Court’s orders to the authorities concerned, in India or abroad. No order was given to Twitter, Google and LinkedIn as their counsels agreed to relay the orders to their clients.

The next hearing on the matter has been scheduled on September 24.

Court issues a ‘John Doe’ order: What are they, and can they work?

The Court was convinced by the companies’ submissions, and saw fit to grant interim protection to them against “John Doe” on social media platforms — it restrained “John Doe” from posting defamatory content on these platforms. It told the platforms to ensure that the restraint could be made effective, however, it didn’t specify if this needed to be done by taking down content (global take down) or blocking access to them in India (geo-blocking).

What are John Doe orders? 
A John Doe order, known as an “Ashok Kumar” order in India, allows the company to get posts deleted from any unnamed person. In essence, according to the Bombay City Civil Court’s orders, any defamatory posts on social media about GOQii and nCore Games would have to be removed or restricted by the platforms.

John Doe orders in defamation suits are not new in the country. In July 2018, PepsiCo was successful in obtaining a similar interim order from the Delhi High Court to delete hundreds of posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. The posts were reportedly spreading rumours that PepsiCo’s Kurkure products contained plastic. The interesting difference in this case was that PepsiCo had in its petition provided a list of posts that it wanted removal of, which included more than 20,000 Facebook posts and several hundred YouTube videos and tweets.

Based on the Civil Court’s orders, the companies seem to have the choice of geo-blocking the content, or take it down globally so that it isn’t accessible to any user anywhere in the world. However, can the Court mandate a global takedown?

The Bombay City Civil Court, in its Thursday order, referred to the Swami Ramdev and Anr Vs Facebook INC and Ors order by the Delhi High Court from 2019, which set the precedent for global take down orders in India. Ramdev had filed the petition seeking an injunction against allegedly defamatory content from the book Godman to Tycoon — The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev”.

In that case, the Delhi High Court had ruled Indian courts could indeed issue orders for global takedowns. Referring to this order, the City Civil Court said, “The social media platforms which were party defendants before the Court were sufficiently capable to enforce the orders of the Court, including the orders of global blocking/geo-blocking. It is observed that, the law has to keep in pace with the advanced technology”. 

What’s the Sushant Singh Rajput conspiracy?

The launch of FAU-G has coincided with a period of great controversy surrounding the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Social media has been rife with rumours and claims that Rajput, who had died by suicide in June this year, had in fact been the brainchild behind FAU-G. The rumours claim that Rajput was murdered so that the game could be stolen from him.

According to a fact-check by BoomLive, the rumour could have begun after journalist Meena Das Narayan commented on a tweet by actor Akshay Kumar, who announced FAU-G for the first time. Das had claimed Rajput had been working on games which were “stolen” from him on June 8, just days before his death. Das had asked for details as to who developed the FAU-G. Soon enough, the rumour was picked by several social media users.

The conspiracy gets murkier: Some social media users started claiming Rajput was working on his gaming project with Samir Bangara, co-founder and CEO of a Qyuki Digital Media, who had died in a motorcycle accident. That Rajput and Bangara had died on the same day — June 14 — added fuel to the fire.

Bangara and Vishal Gondal, the co-founder of nCore Games (one of the complainants in the present petition), had been business partners at IndiaGames, which was brought over by Disney. Social media users claimed Rajput and Bangara were killed for the gaming project, and Gondal had a key role in the alleged murders. And this gaming project, they claimed, is now being released as FAU-G.

Gondal later told Boom that the game had been in development since February and denied any links to Rajput.

GOQii filed a complaint against unknown persons in Govandi police station in Mumbai on August 25. Later, on September 7, Gondal and Dayanidhi MD of Studio nCore filed a similar complaint with the Cyber Police Station in Mumbai.

Corrigendum: An earlier version of this article had said that only YouTube and Facebook were supposed to take down defamatory content about the makers, investors or representatives of FAU-G, while Twitter, LinkedIn and Google were allowed time to respond to the motion. This was inaccurate. The Court had issued direct orders to YouTube and Facebook, and didn’t do so for Twitter, LinkedIn and Google as their counsels agreed to convey the order to their clients. Also, the order pertains to all social media platforms. The error is regretted. Our apologies.