New Delhi: The Kerala high court on Wednesday issued notice to the Centre on a writ petition filed by LiveLaw, a legal news website, challenging the Information Technology (Guidelines For Intermediaries And Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. The petition, the website said, said the rules notified on February 25 impose “arbitrary, vague, disproportionate and unreasonable” restrictions on digital news media and social media intermediaries.
The new Rules seek to regulate media portals, over the top (OTT) streaming platforms and social media intermediaries. They grant sweeping powers to the Centre, including the right to demand removal of content. The rules have come under criticism from news portals, journalists bodies and internet freedom advocates.
The judge also said that the Central government could not take any coercive action against LiveLaw under Part III of the rules, which deal with digital media publications. Respondents shall not take any coercive action against petitioners with reference to provisions contained in Part 3 of IT Rules. Petitioner is a publisher of law reports and legal literature,” Justice Asha said in the interim order.
LiveLaw News Media Pvt Ltd, which publishes LiveLaw, said the new rules are illegal and violative of Articles 13,14, 19(1)(a), 19(1)(g), and 21 of the constitution of India and also ultra vires the Information Technology Act, under which the rules have been framed. LiveLaw founder and chief editor M.A. Rashid and managing editor Manu Sebastian are co-petitioners, along with the parent company.
Advocate Santhosh Mathew, who appeared for the petitioners, told the court that the IT Act did not give the Central government the power to make rules that regulate digital media. He added that the rules were invasive, arbitrary and disproportionate, and could not be termed as “reasonable restrictions”. “We are reporting judgments. Somebody to whom the judgment is not palatable, may make a grievance, and we are required to sit in appeal over the content,” he said.
Mathew also said that the rules were undoing safeguards put in place by the Supreme Court in the Shreya Singhal judgment. He gave an example of the issues the rules could cause: “”Mr.A is writing an article. Somebody takes an objection. I am obliged to take it down. It could be a retired Supreme Court judge writing the article. I cannot issue a notice to him. This can put us in a lot of embarrassing situations.”
The Centre’s counsel, Suvin Menon, argued that the power of the rules could be traced back to Sections 69A and 69B of the IT Act. “I will place on record the background. Post 2010 social media activism has been in the high. Several news media outlets have developed. Are these persons not accountable?” he said.
In its petition, LiveLaw has said that the rules “imposes an unconstitutional three-tiered complaints-and-adjudication structure upon publishers, which makes the executive both the complainant and the judge on vital free speech questions involving blocking and take down of online material”.
“The provision for ‘review’ under Rule 17 does not even provide any lip service to the rights of Digital News Media since the ‘Review Committee’ solely comprises of members of the executive (with the same Ministries as involved in the Inter-Departmental Committee); does not provide the aggrieved publisher with a right to be heard; and fails to provide any judicial oversight over the censorship complaint by Respondent No. 2(I&B Ministry),” it continues.
Another petition has been filed challenging the legality of the news rules in the Delhi high court, by the Foundation for Independent Journalism (which publishes The Wire), The Wire‘s founding editor M.K. Venu and The News Minute‘s founding editor Dhanya Rajendran. The Delhi high court issued notice to the Centre in the case on Tuesday.