The Supreme Court on Tuesday transferred to itself all the cases related to linking social media accounts with Aadhaar already pending in different high courts, PTI reported.

The court was hearing a petition filed by Facebook to transfer cases being heard in the High Courts of Madras, Bombay and Madhya Pradesh in connection with the linking of social media profiles with Aadhaar. In its transfer petition, Facebook had said that the cases pending in the High Courts involved similar questions of law and should be heard by the Supreme Court to avoid conflicting judgements.

The top court decided to transfer to itself the cases after Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for Tamil Nadu, dropped his opposition to Facebook’s plea.

A bench headed by Justice Deepak Gupta directed the court registry to place all the connected cases before the chief justice for listing in the last week of January. It also told the Centre to submit its report in January on the notification of rules to regulate social media in India. The Centre agreed to do it by January 15.

The Centre had on Monday sought three months’ time to finalise and notify the rules. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology told the court that internet had become a potent tool for causing “unimaginable disruption to the democratic polity”. The ministry said that although technology had aided economic growth and development, it had also given rise to hate speech, fake news, and anti-national activities.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was representing the Centre, said on Tuesday that the move to notify rules for social media was not a ploy to breach the privacy of citizens but was only meant to protect security.

Venugopal said Facebook and WhatsApp should decrypt any information that the government wants for analysis. But the companies said they didn’t have the key to decrypt the information, acccording to NDTV.

“The government wants the key from the house owner and the owner says he doesn’t have the key,” the court observed. But it also noted that while the Information Technology Act empowered the government to seek such information, intermediaries cannot be forced to decrypt data for the government, Bar and Bench reported. Senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for Facebook, agreed.

Senior Counsel Shyam Divan, who represented the Internet Freedom Foundation, interjected and submitted that the court’s hearing should be restricted to the transfer petition. “In a transfer petition, rights of citizens are trampled upon and later it becomes very difficult,” Divan said. “It’s important that the Court refrains itself from making any observations and restricts to hearing the case on issue of transfer at this point.”

The Internet Freedom Foundation had opposed the transfer because the pleadings before the Madras High Court were nearly complete. The Madras High Court had ordered adjournment after the plea to transfer the proceedings to the Supreme Court.

Facebook, in its petition, had said it was necessary to “ensure that users are afforded equal privacy protections across India, and to prevent the infeasible situation where the petitioner [Facebook] ordered to link Aadhaar information for users only in certain Indian states but not others”.

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