The Delhi High Court on Tuesday sought a response from the Centre on a petition challenging its new Information Technology rules. The petition was filed by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, a trust that owns digital news portal The Wire, Dhanya Rajendran, the founder and editor-in-chief of The News Minute, and The Wire Founding Editor MK Venu.

On February 25, the Centre notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, under the Information Technology Act, 2000. The rules 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.

Online platforms will now have to be much more responsive to complaints about posts on their networks, including giving the government details about the “originator” of content – effectively breaking end-to-end encryption – as well as setting up verification systems that could have a major impact on individual privacy.

The petitioners have challenged the rules only with regard to their implications on digital media, arguing that it seeks to regulate online news portals by imposing government oversight and a vaguely worded “code of ethics”.

Here are some key excerpts from the petition:

  • The new IT rules are “palpably illegal” in seeking control to regulate digital news media when the parent Information Technology Act nowhere provides for such a remit. “The same has profound and serious harms for digital news media such as the petitioners and destructive of their rights,” the plea said.
  • It said the parent IT Act is limited to providing legal recognition, authentication and facilitation of interchange of electronic data and electronic communication, and its receipt as evidence. It pointed out that the Act did not deal with the regulation of electronic content, except in cases of cyber terrorism, sexually explicit material, child pornography, tampering, and theft. None of these offences are of any relevance to a digital news portal, the petition said.
  • Further, the petition said the new rules introduced by the Centre have separate “code of ethics” for the two kinds publishers of news and current affairs content, and publishers of online curated content. “[This] will be subjected to an adjudicatory mechanism parallel to courts of law, on a range of grounds which are not even offences under the parent Act,” it added. “Whether news agencies and commentators on current affairs should be subjected to a code of ethics is not the question. The question is whether regulation and oversight by the government or its agents can be prescribed by the rules when not contemplated by the parent Act (though such an exercise even by Parliament would be open to serious challenge).”
  • On a “self-regulatory body” that will oversee complaints regarding digital news organisations and video-streaming platforms, the plea said, “the committee also has the power to recommend to the [I&B] Ministry draconian measures such as ordering the modification, deletion or blocking of content on certain perceived dangers.”
  • “The parent [IT] 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 plea added.
  • The code of ethics, the plea said, stipulates vague conditions such as “good taste” and “decency”. Stating that these matters are nowhere within the contemplation of the parent Act, it added, “Notably, an offence under Section 66-A penalising content which is ‘offensive’ or causes ‘annoyance’ was struck down on grounds of vagueness by the Supreme Court in Shreya Singhal vs Union Of India.”
  • “Simply put, upon the merest complaint, Central government interference is triggered on all manner of content – far beyond that which is mentioned in Section 69-A [of IT Act],” the plea said. “The complaint may simply be that some content in a news report or editorial is a ‘half-truth’ or adverse to the social or moral life of the country. A government oversight of news media content lies nowhere within the scope of the Act.”