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Madras High Court issues notice to Union Government over plea moved by media outlets challenging IT Rules 2021

justice, law, globe

The Madras High Court on Wednesday issued a notice to the Union of India while admitting another petition against the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. This writ petition challenges the constitutionality of the Rules and alleges that it violates the Fundamental Right of Equality Before Law (Article 14), freedom of speech and expression (Article 19(1)(a), and the right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or business (Article 19 (1) (g)).

The petition filed by Digital News Publishers Association and journalist Mukund Padmanabhan has been tagged along with the petition filed by Carnatic singer TM Krishna. Krishna’s petition claimed that the IT Rules 2021 were in violation of the Right to Privacy, artistic speech, and ultra vires to the IT Act (2000).

In the order available on the Madras High Court website on Wednesday, Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy said, “Issue notice to the respondents (Union of India). A copy of the petition should be forwarded to the office of the learned Additional Solicitor General. The respondents should file their counter-affidavits within a fortnight from the data. The matter will appear three weeks hence.”

The Digital News Publishers Association comprises:

  • Jagran New Media
  • DB Corp
  • Express Network Pvt Ltd
  • IE Online Media Services Ltd
  • Lokmat Media Private Ltd
  • NDTV Convergence Ltd
  • ABP Network Private Ltd
  • Times Internet and a few others

The DNPA sought a stay on Rules 12, 14, and 16 of the IT Rules 2021. The High Court, in its order, took cognisance of their request and said, “there is sufficient basis for the petitioners’ apprehension that coercive and arm-twisting action may be taken under such provisions.”

Since no adverse action has been initiated against the petitioners as of now, no omnibus order is made at this stage. However, if such provisions are resorted to against the petitioners, the petitioners will be at liberty to apply for interim relief in these proceedings — Madras High Court order

What are Rules 12, 14, and 16 of the IT Rules 2021?

Rule 12: This rule states that applicable entities under the purview of IT Rules 2021 will have to develop an Oversight Mechanism which would have the following functions:

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  • Publish a charter for self-regulating bodies, including Codes of Practices for such bodies.
  • Develop a Grievance portal for prompt disposal of grievances.
  • Establish and refer to an Inter-Departmental Committee for hearing grievances. This committee would comprise officials of various ministries, domain experts, and so on.

Rule 14: This rule states that an authorised officer can identify entities that have published specific content, and ask them to submit clarifications regarding the content before the Inter-Departmental Committee. The committee can make a decision to block the content based on the clarifications provided.

Rule 16: This rule defines a ‘significant publisher of news and current affairs as those which is operational in India, and “has not less than 5 lakh subscribers or 50 lakh followers on the services of any significant social media intermediary”. This significant publisher of news and current affairs is required to notify the Broadcast Seva that it is operating in India by furnishing the required information.

Main contentions of the petitioners

According to Bar and Bench, the DNPA and Padmanabhan make these contentions regarding the Rules:

  • It seeks to legislate entities that are not within the scope of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
  • Seeks to curb the freedom of speech and expression, as well as the freedom of the press.
  • Promotes surveillance and fear, thereby resulting in self-censorship, which curtails the fundamental rights under the Constitution of India.
  • Legacy media houses (print and television) have been wrongfully classified as digital media.
  • It imposes arbitrary, unjustified, undue, and unfair oversight onto the acts of these media outlets.
  • The Code of Ethics is vague which provides a broad scope for misuse by the authorities.
  • Part II of the IT Rules, 2021 (Due diligence by intermediaries and grievance redressal mechanism) is antithetical to the fundamental rights.
  • The Rules, 2021 were passed without any consultation with legacy media houses,

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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