Defending the legality of the new Information Technology (IT) Rules, the Centre argued before the Delhi High Court that the new rules intend to “prevent misuse of the freedom of press” and will safeguard citizens from fake news across the largely unregulated digital media platform. Responding to a challenge to the constitutional validity of the new IT rules, the Centre, in its counter affidavit to the court, noted that while the right to freedom of speech and expression, including the freedom of the press – is crucial for a democratic nation like India, the citizens “cannot be treated as passive consumers”.
“IT Rules seek to prevent the misuse of the freedom of press by empowering the audience with a mechanism to raise their grievances related to the content being published by the digital news publishers through a grievance redressal mechanism with an emphasis on the self-regulatory architecture for digital news publishers, and are therefore not only within the ambit of the Act, but also fulfil the object sought to be achieved by the (IT) Act,” the Centre mentioned in its affidavit submitted before the Delhi High Court.
The Centre had notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 in February, attempting to impose a “Code of Ethics” on digital publications. The new rules impose various regulations on digital media entities, including an obligation to take down contentious content quicker, appoint grievance redressal officers, assist in investigations, and so on.
In a statement released in March 2021, the Editors’ Guild of India expressed their concern of the new rules and noted, “They empower the Union government to block, delete, or modify published news anywhere in the country without any judicial oversight and mandate all publishers to establish a grievance redressal mechanism. Various provisions in these rules can place unreasonable restrictions on digital news media, and consequently media at large.”
The Centre’s affidavit comes following the Delhi High Court’s notice seeking a response on petitions filed by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, The Wire, Quint Digital Media Ltd. and the Pravda Media Foundation, which is the parent company of Alt News. The petitions challenged the constitutional validity of the IT Rules under the provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and stated that the new rules apply to publishers of news and current affairs content as part of digital media and will regulate their functioning by imposing government oversight. The pleas sought the courts intervention in striking down the rules, stating that they violate Article 19(1)(a), Article 19(1)(g) and Article 14 of the Constitution.
In the counter affidavit filed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, the Centre cited “past incidents of disinformation on digital media leading to disturbance of public order”, and noted that digital media “allows sensational content being re-circulated in a different context leading to misinterpretation by the audience”.
“IT Rules seek to prevent the misuse of the freedom of press by empowering the audience with a mechanism to raise their grievances related to the content being published by digital news publishers through a grievance redressal mechanism with an emphasis on the self-regulatory architecture for digital news publishers, and are therefore not only within the ambit of the Act, but also fulfill the object sought to be achieved by the (IT) Act,” read the affidavit. It continued, “Before the notification of the Rules, digital news media was largely unregulated. It is submitted that before the notification of the rules, no such mechanism was currently in operation with regard to news on digital media, thereby leading to a discriminatory imbalance within the news media ecosystem with respect to content on traditional media.”
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The Centre noted that the digital platform is “far wider as compared to traditional media” which “makes it a powerful tool for information campaigns by foreign state and non-state actors to influence public opinion in any nation”. “Online platforms, for commercial reasons, may have a tendency to retain the consumer on their platform for a longer period. This results in proliferation and spread of news content that appears to be sensational. The risk of false or misleading information is greater over the internet as the same can be spread rapidly within the society. It is an economic environment marked by competition for eye-balls and regulatory vacuum with respect to the content on digital media has led to spread fake news and other potentially harmful content without any accountability of digital news publishers,” it added.
The Centre further argued that the newly imposed regulations are valid under the IT Act and add no further restrictions from that which have been already imposed. It claimed that the rules have no major impact on digital content. “Over 1,800 digital media publishers, over 97 percent of them being publishers of news and current affairs content, have appointed a Grievance Redressal Officer (Level-I), and furnished their information to the Ministry,” it mentioned.