The Kerala High Court on Wednesday restrained the Centre from taking coercive action against legal news portal Live Law under the new digital media rules, the website reported. The court also issued a notice while hearing publisher LiveLaw News Media Private Limited’s plea challenging the new rules for digital media.

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 regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content, virtually bringing them, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.

Live Law’s counsel Santhosh Mathew said that the Centre only had the power to “regulate intermediaries”. “Digital Media is not defined under IT Act. It is defined under the new rules,” he said. “First petitioner comes under the definition of ‘publisher’ under the rules. The irony is they call it ‘self regulatory’. This body has to be registered with the ministry. Before registering, the ministry will take a call if it is acceptable to them.”

Mathew also mentioned the Supreme Court’s Shreya Singhal v Union of India 2015 judgement that struck down Section 66A of the IT Act. The section criminalised sending offensive messages online. “The reason this is objectionable is, identical provisions were quashed in Shreya Singhal judgement,” he said. “The intermediary applying its own mind whether content is to be blocked is absent in Section 69A, the SC noted in Shreya Singhal [case].”

“How can law reports be defamatory?” asked a single bench of Justice PV Asha. To this, lawyer Suvin Menon, representing the Centre, said that it was not about the reports but the articles. “They themselves admitted that in articles, the author will have a view. What is the problem with an oversight?” Menon asked, according to Live Law.

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Live Law’s counsel noted that the portal was only reporting on judgements, and that someone displeased with the coverage may make a grievance. “...and we are required to sit in appeal over the content,” he added. “After that a self-regulatory body, which is at the mercy of [the] central government, will sit in judgement. We cannot be prosecuted because of somebody sitting in Delhi deciding the so-called ethical standards.”

The Centre’s lawyer said that the “source of power” of the new rules may be traced to Sections 69A and 69B of the IT Act.

Under Section 69A, a content removal request can be sent by authorised personnel in the Central government, not below the rank of a joint secretary. The grounds for issuance of blocking orders under section 69A are “the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to the above”.

Section 69B gives the power to authorise, to monitor, and collect traffic data or information through any computer resource for cyber security. The Centre may authorise any government agency to monitor and collect traffic data or information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource.

“It is not that they are publishing everything that is transmitted to them,” argued the Centre’s counsel, according to Live Law. “Articles which have personal opinion of the author, who is accountable? Lakhs of people are reading these articles.” To this, the legal news portal’s lawyer said that his client was not denying the liability, but that the Centre had no power to regulate under Section 69 of the IT Act.

Following this, the court granted the plea to refrain from coercive action. “Petitioner is a publisher of law reports and legal literature,” the court said, according to Live Law. “Respondents shall not take any coercive action against petitioners with reference to provisions contained in Part 3 of IT Rules.”