The Madras High Court on Wednesday issued a notice in a petition challenging the constitutionality of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, reported Live Law.

The Digital News Publishers Association, an organisation of 12 digital media outlets, along with journalist Mukund Padmanabhan filed the plea in the High Court.

The plea said that organisations that only run online publications should fall under the ambit of the new information technology rules, according to Live Law. According to the petitioners, online news portals of “legacy media houses” that run newspapers and news channels do not come under the new rules.

A bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy took up the submissions and tagged the matter with the June 10 writ petition of Carnatic musician TM Krishna. The singer has also moved the High Court, questioning the constitutional validity of the new information technology rules.

The petitioners said that the Union ministry of Electronics and Information and Technology had incorrectly and “arbitrarily classified legacy media houses”, which includes print and television media as part of the digital media.

“That it needs no mention that the print newspaper media along with television broadcast media has long remained the fourth pillar of democracy in the country since independence,” the plea read. “To now paint the said media houses in the same vein as ‘digital media’ is wholly arbitrary as it seeks to impose onerous compliances on such media houses.”

The plea also argued that part three of the rules imposed “arbitrary, unjustified, undue and unfair oversight into the acts” of the members of the Digital News Publishers Association. “...which opens the door to suppressing freedom of speech and the independence of news media in the country, which has been upheld by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in a catena of judgments,” the petition said.

The petitioners also pointed out that the “publisher of news and current affairs content” would be regulated under part three of the new information technology rules. “...the IT Rules 2021 have created a distinction that is vague and arbitrary, and which has no reasonable or rational nexus with the purported object which it purportedly seeks to achieve,” the petition said, according to Live Law.

After the submission, the court allowed the petitioners to approach it for interim relief if any coercive step is taken against them through Rules 12, 14 and 16 of the new information technology rules, reported Bar and Bench.

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The new IT rules

The new 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.

Among other things, the “Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021” regulations require these platforms 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. All of them should be based in India. It also requires social media platforms with over 50 lakh users to help in identifying the “originator” of messages upon the government’s request.

Besides the Madras High Court, the Delhi, Karnataka and Kerala High Courts have admitted pleas to consider the validity of the new rules.

The Wire had moved the Delhi High Court in March, arguing that argued that even though the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which had similar provisions to regulate content, the Centre introduced the new rules to “do indirectly what it cannot do directly.” Later in the same month, The Quint also moved the Delhi High Court, submitting that the rules are “meant to be a ruse for the state to enter and directly control the content of digital news portals”.

Again in March, the Kerala High Court had restrained the Centre from taking coercive action against Live Law under the new digital media rules. Kannada news portal Pratidhwani also approached the Karnataka High Court in the same month against the rules.

In May, messaging platform WhatsApp also moved the Delhi High Court challenging a provision under the new social media rules, which mandates the company to identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it.

Twitter too has been critical of the regulations. The social media company had said it was concerned about the “potential threat” to freedom of expression as India’s new social media rules came into effect. The company had added that it will “strive to comply with applicable law” in India, but will be strictly guided by the principals of transparency.

In June, Alphabet Inc’s Google had moved the Delhi High Court, saying that the new rules for digital media were not applicable to the search engine.