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New IT Rules ‘most draconian’ in recent times, ‘chilling effect’ on free speech, HC told

HC refuses immediate interim relief, awaits SC decision.

Written by Omkar Gokhale | Mumbai |
Updated: August 10, 2021 11:02:01 am
IT rules, it rules 2021, bombay hc, the leaflet, free speech, idian express, indian express news, umbai newsA division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni was hearing two pleas challenging the new IT Rules calling them "arbitrary and illegal". (File)

The Bombay High Court on Monday was told by petitioners, senior journalist Nikhil Wagle and legal news portal The Leaflet, that the recently notified Information Technology Rules, 2021, under the Information Technology (IT) Act were “draconian censoring and regulating free speech” on the internet and will have “chilling effect” on free speech of authors, editors and the public at large.

A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish S Kulkarni was hearing two pleas challenging the new IT Rules calling them “arbitrary and illegal”, in contradiction to Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution, and against “principle of net neutrality”, which is adopted by all countries including India.

The new rules for social media platforms and digital news outlets, called Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, came into effect in May. The guidelines, announced in February, asked all social media platforms to set up grievance redress and compliance mechanism, which included appointing a resident grievance officer, chief compliance officer and nodal contact person.

Senior counsel Daraius Khambata, representing AGIJ Promotion Of Nineteenonea Media Pvt Ltd, the company that owns The Leaflet, submitted that the new IT Rules are “vague, wide and so draconian” and have “terrible chilling effect on free speech on authors, editors and anyone who wants to put up anything up on the internet”. The petitioner sought interim relief through staying the Rules, pending hearing of the pleas.

Khambata said while the IT Act itself did not seek to censor content, it was being done through the new Rules. He also argued that the new Rules sought to control “investigative journalism”. He said while journalists were required to be accurate, the Rules cannot decide what is fair, and cannot control publishers and editors through it.

Advocate Abhay Nevagi, representing Wagle in his PIL, said the Rules provide “unfettered powers” to the executive to direct intermediaries to delete or modify or block relevant content or information, and that they should be quashed.

Additional solicitor general Anil Singh for the central government told the bench that Supreme Court was likely to hear the plea, seeking the transfer of the present two petitions in the High Court to the apex court on August 10, and urged the court to wait till SC’s decision.

“We propose to consider the submissions made by ASG (additional solicitor general) Singh provided this bench is not precluded from doing so by an order passed by Supreme Court on the transfer petition,” the bench stated and posted further hearing to August 10.

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