The Supreme Court of India. (HT Photo)
The Supreme Court of India. (HT Photo)

SC to hear Centre’s transfer plea on IT Rules next week

On March 23, the top court had stayed all High Courts from considering any fresh petitions with regard to OTT Regulations.
By Abraham Thomas
UPDATED ON JUL 09, 2021 06:25 PM IST

The Supreme Court on Friday refused to stay the proceedings against the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 pending before various High Courts on a plea moved by the Centre to transfer these petitions to the top court.

A bench of Justices AM Khanwilkar and Sanjiv Khanna directed the Centre’s transfer petition to be listed on July 16 before another bench that is considering regulations to rein in over the top (OTT) platforms such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hotstar, etc. The 2021 IT Rules also apply to OTT platforms.

On March 23 this year, a three-judge bench of the top court had stayed all High Courts from considering any fresh petitions with regard to OTT Regulations. It will be this bench that will now consider the transfer petition by the Centre with regard to petitions challenging the IT Rules 2021 on July 16.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Centre, informed the Court that presently, petitions against the IT Rules were pending before the High Courts of Delhi, Madras, Bombay and Kerala.

As per the Rules, the digital media functionaries were to appoint a Grievance Redressal Officer within three months. That period expired in May this year.

Mehta stated that the Kerala High Court on Friday had ordered interim protection to the News Broadcasters Association from any coercive action for non-compliance under the IT Rules.

The Delhi High Court, on the other hand, had refused protection to another set of petitioners. Mehta urged the Court to stay proceedings before various High Courts till the next date of hearing.

The bench said, “Today we are simply tagging this matter with the other pending case. That matter is pending before a bench presided over by Justice DY Chandrachud. We will not issue any order except to list this petition before the appropriate bench on July 16.”

The Foundation for Independent Journalism, which runs the news website ‘The Wire’ was present during the proceedings on caveat. The Foundation for Independent Journalism was the first to challenge the Rules before the Delhi High Court in March this year. Later, Quint Digital Media Limited which publishes The Quint also filed a petition and the same is pending with the Delhi High Court.

Senior advocate CU Singh and advocate Liz Mathew who appeared for the petitioners before various High Courts informed the Court that the matter heard by Justice Chandrachud had nothing to do with the challenge to IT Rules 2021. “Those petitions were filed prior to the coming of the IT Rules 2021 and are on a completely different issue,” said Singh.

The IT Rules 2021 were introduced in February this year. The new rules applied to digital news media platforms, social media intermediaries and OTT platforms, bringing all digital media functionaries under a three-tier oversight mechanism. This comprised of a grievance officer responsible to deal with complaints for taking down indecent content within 24 hours of a complaint. The two remaining tiers of the oversight system consisted of a self-regulatory body of experts headed by a former judge, and an inter-departmental committee headed by a senior bureaucrat of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Besides Delhi High Court, petitions challenging the IT Rules are under consideration of the Madras High Court in a petition filed by Digital News Publishers Association among others; Kerala High Court on a petition filed by legal news website Live Law and lately the News Broadcasters Association; and the Bombay High Court on two petitions moved by a journalist and a news portal.

Even the Calcutta High Court is considering the validity of the IT Rules in a PIL proceeding while a media house has gone to the Karnataka High Court challenging the Rules in question.

These petitions have largely claimed that the Rules curtail and restrict the freedom of the press in India and claim the conditions imposed under the Digital Media Ethics Code and guidelines to be onerous and beyond the scope of the Information Technology Act 2000.

The use of vague words such as “good taste” and “decency” in the Ethics Code are additional challenges to the Rules which, according to many of the petitioners, gave “pervasive control to the state over published content”.

However, the Centre has said that the Rules are intended to provide speedy redressal of complaints to enable taking down harmful content, personally intimate pictures or videos of individuals within 24 hours. The Rules also require the media functionaries to cooperate with the Government and investigating agencies for purposes of verification of identity, detection and prevention of crimes, and investigation or prosecution of offences.

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