August 11, 2021 4:22:12 am
The Bombay High Court on Tuesday directed the Union government to file an affidavit on why interim relief cannot be granted in two pleas filed by journalist Nikhil Wagle and legal news portal The Leaflet, challenging the recently notified Information Technology Rules, 2021, under the Information Technology (IT) Act.
The petitioners, while seeking quashing of the new rules, have demanded interim relief by staying the rules pending hearing of their pleas.
The division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni was hearing pleas filed by Wagle and AGIJ Promotion Of Nineteenonea Media Private Limited – the company that owns The Leaflet – challenging the new IT rules, calling them “arbitrary and illegal”, in contradiction to articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution, and against the “principle of net neutrality”.
The new rules for social media platforms and digital news outlets — called Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code – has asked all social media platforms to set up grievance redressal and compliance mechanisms.
Senior advocate Darius Khambata and advocate Abhay Nevagi, representing The Leaflet and Wagle, respectively, described the rules as “draconian censoring and regulating free speech” on the Internet, which will have a “chilling effect” on free speech of authors, editors and the public at large.
Wagle said the rules provide “unfettered powers” to the executive to direct intermediaries to delete, modify or block relevant content or information.
The court expressed surprise at the Centre not having filed affidavits in reply to any petition filed in various high courts challenging new the IT rules.
Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, appearing for the Centre, told HC that a petition seeking transfer of all similar pleas to the Supreme Court was not listed for hearing on Tuesday but the Centre has requested the SC registry for its early listing. Stating that SC is likely to hear the plea this week, Singh sought an adjournment.
After Singh sought time till August 16 to file an affidavit in reply, the HC was inclined to direct the Centre not to take any coercive action till next hearing. “It’ll be problematic. Because they (petitioners and others) are (living) under constant fear,” the HC had initially said. However, Singh then said that Centre would file the affidavit within three days and no interim order should be passed till then.
The HC accepted this and directed the Centre to file a short affidavit on why interim relief cannot be granted to the petitioners. The bench will hear the matter on August 13.
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