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News portals challenge new Modi govt rules for digital media, say it’s beyond scope of IT Act

The petition challenges the new rules as being ‘beyond the powers’ of the Information Technology Act 2000, under which they were issued.

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New Delhi: “Undoes Shreya Singhal”, “beyond the object and scope” of the Information Technology Act 2000 — these are some of the grounds on which a petition challenging the government’s new IT Rules, which seek to regulate digital news media platforms, was filed on 6 March.

The petition was jointly filed by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, a non-profit organisation that publishes news portal The Wire; M.K. Venu, the foundation’s director and The Wire’s founding editor, and Dhanya Rajendran, Editor-in-Chief, The News Minute.

The petition claims that “allowing a regulatory regime to be established in respect of the digital media industry is like allowing power looms to be regulated under the Electricity Act merely because they employ and use electric power in the course of their business; or allowing the practice and profession of plumbing to be regulated under the Water Act.”

The Delhi High Court issued a notice on the petition Tuesday, saying it will hear the parties “at length” on 16 April. The bench comprising Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh said the petitioners can approach the court if any coercive action is taken before the next date of hearing.

Filed through advocates Prasanna S., Vinoothna Vinjam and Bharat Gupta, the petition challenges the rules as being ‘ultra vires’ the Information Technology Act 2000, under which they were issued. Ultra vires translate to ‘beyond the powers’. It is used to describe an act which requires legal authority but is then found to be outside the scope of that legal authority.

It, however, clarifies that the petition only challenges the rules as far as they affect digital news portals and that it does not question the regulation of OTT media platforms or other entities sought to be regulated by the rules.

Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 were notified and published on 25 February. The Rules intend to regulate functioning of online media portals and publishers, over-the-top (OTT) platforms, and social media intermediaries. They regulate digital news platforms through a Code of Ethics.

Also read: The meaning of govt’s new IT rules for OTT, digital media & the serious concerns they raise

‘Vague and subjective standards’

The petition alleges that the Code of Ethics uses “vague and subjective standards” with use of words such as ‘half- truths’, ‘good taste’, ‘decency’, etc.

It then refers to the Supreme Court verdict in the Shreya Singhal case, in which the court struck down Section 66A of the IT Act. Section 66A criminalised sending “offensive messages” online and was declared unconstitutional in March 2015.

In doing so, the court had, among other things, asserted that the provision uses vague expressions such as “grossly offensive” and “menacing”, leading to a situation where “there is no manageable standard by which a person can be said to have committed an offence or not to have committed an offence”.

The petition, therefore, alleges that even without a law being put in place, the rules bring in similar grounds, “which…undoes Shreya Singhal”.

IT Act doesn’t intend to regulate digital news

The petition points out that the IT Act 2000 actually deals with data/record, and that the purpose of the law is to legally recognise electronic data/record, recognise means of electronic communication, list down the conditions in which electronic data can be considered evidence, and identify the offences committed through computers.

It then asserts that the intention of the law is not to regulate any other content beyond this.

“Therefore, the parent Act does not recognise digital news media as a separate category of entities and does not seek to subject them or their content to any set of special regulations,” the petition explains.

The rules go on to extend the application of the Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 and the Norms of Journalistic Conduct under the Press Council Act 1978 to digital news media as well.

The petition points out that while both the Cable TV Networks Act and the Press Council Act specifically provide for putting regulation codes in place, the IT Act “neither intends nor provides for the imposition of a programme code, or regulation of news portals in any manner”.

Also read: New rules for OTT platforms ineffective to control screening of content, observes SC

‘Beyond the object and scope of Section 69A’

The rules have been issued under Section 69A of the IT Act that allows the Centre to issue directions for blocking access of any information online, “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence”.

Section 69A was also used to ban 59 Chinese apps last year in the wake of the Galwan Valley clash in Ladakh, and to direct withholding of several Twitter accounts last month.

The petition notes that the rule sets up a three-tier structure to ensure observance and adherence to the Code of Ethics. Among other things, it allows ‘self regulating bodies’ to “warn or censure, require the publisher to apologize or display a warning/disclaimer”. The Rules also allow the committee formed by the Centre to “recommend to the (I&B) Ministry, draconian measures such as ordering the modification, deletion or blocking of content,” it adds.

It then points out that Section 69A neither allows regulation or censoring of news media, nor empowers the government to direct publishers to delete content, make changes, or publish apologies.

The petition also submits that regulation of digital news can only be done through a law made by the Parliament and not through rules issued by the executive.


(Edited by Neha Mahajan)

Also read: This is how Modi govt’s new rules will regulate digital media and OTT content


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  1. Now, Media, please don’t come out saying that one can’t speak against the Government in India and media is being suppressed. This headlines says to to the contrary. Shun hypocritic behavior. There are plenty anti Government opinions, views and critic in all types of media. Good for democracy which is alive and kicking, so to speak.

    You are challenging the Government here too. You must. Good for democracy. Get real

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