The Delhi High Court on Friday issued a notice to the Central government seeking its reply to a petition by WhatsApp challenging a clause in the Information Technology Rules, 2021, Live Law reported.

WhatsApp’s petition challenges Rule 4(2) of the IT Rules, which requires messaging platforms to identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it. WhatsApp has argued that the provision was unconstitutional and against people’s fundamental right to privacy. The rules will also force the company to break end-to-end message encryption, it added.

During Friday’s hearing, the Centre asked the court to adjourn the matter. However, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for WhatsApp, said that when the case was first heard, the court had not issued a notice to the government as lawyers representing it sought time to take instructions.

“Today again they moved a letter seeking adjournment,” Rohatgi said. “At least issue notice, let them file a reply. It’s a very serious question raised in relation to validity [of] IT Rules, 2021.”

The lawyer for WhatsApp told the court that he was not currently seeking an interim order. After this, the court directed the Centre to file its reply and posted the matter for hearing on October 22.

In May, former Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad had described WhatsApp’s lawsuit as “a clear act of defiance”. He maintained that no fundamental right, including the right to privacy, is absolute and added that it is subject to reasonable restrictions.

The government had also said that WhatsApp would be required to reveal the origin of a particular message only for the “prevention, investigation, punishment of an offence relating to sovereignty, integrity and security of India, public order incitement to an offence relating to rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material punishable with imprisonment for not less than five years”.

IT rules

The Information Technology rules which were announced in February and became effective in May are framed to regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content, virtually bringing them, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.

Apart from the provision to trace every single message on the government’s request, the regulations also require social media companies to appoint chief compliance officers, in order to make sure the rules are followed, nodal officers, to coordinate with law enforcement agencies, and grievance officers.

The Delhi High Court has also been hearing two more petitions challenging the regulations. One of the petitions was filed by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, a trust that owns news website The Wire, Dhanya Rajendran, the founder and editor-in-chief of The News Minute and The Wire Founding Editor MK Venu. The other plea was filed by news website The Quint, saying that the rules are “meant to be a ruse for the state to enter and directly control the content of digital news portals”.

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