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Delhi High Court issues notice to government on plea challenging Information Technology Rules 2021

The Delhi High-Court has issued notice on a petition which challenges the newly introduced Information Technology (Guidelines for intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. The new rules which were notified by the government on February 25, seeks to introduce a self-regulatory regime for online intermediaries, social media platforms, streaming services and digital media companies. LiveLaw was the first to report the development.

The new rules essentially introduce a new a regulatory oversight mechanism for news and current affairs/curated content on the internet, under the oversight of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB). Under these rules, the MIB has been awarded with powers to issue orders to publishers and online intermediaries block, delete or modify news and current affairs content under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

The government also has the powers to reprimand news organisations based on their ability to comply with the rules and the timelines set up the proposed three-tier grievance redressal mechanism. These rules effect all news organisations publishing content on the internet, foreign news and curated content publishers as well as independent online news and current affairs commentators.

The petition challenging these rules on ‘news media’ was filed by the Foundation of Independent Journalism (the trust that owns TheWire), its founding editor MK Venu and Dhanya Rajendran, founder and editor-in-chief of the The News Minute. The petition solely represented ‘publishers of news and current affairs’ content or news media, and not curated content publishers or streaming services. The petition says that the entirety of Part III of the rules, specifically for digital media publishers, is ultra vires the parent Act and and if allowed to stand it would effect freedom of expression in the country.

Senior Advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan, appearing for the petitioners, told the court the government was in effect bringing back powers it had under Section 66A of the IT Act, 2000, which was struck down by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal v Union of India in March 2015. She told the court that Section 69A only comes into play on specific grounds and it is limited to be issued to intermediaries and not news publishers.

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As part of her arguments before the Division bench of the Delhi High-Court, headed by Chief Justice DN Patel, Ramakrishnan said while the government has published a list of intermediaries who fall under the ambit of the IT Act, 2000, digital media companies and publishers are not intermediaries, she said. News media is not beyond regulations, but it has to be regulated through a statute which is passed by the legislature, she said.

The petition will be heard next on April 16, 2021.

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