The Bombay High Court on Tuesday directed the Centre to file a reply to a plea filed by stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra challenging an amendment to the Information Technology (IT) Rules which empowers the Central government to identify fake news on social media against the government.
A division bench of Justices Gautam Patel and Neela Gokhale has asked the government to explain by why the amendment was required.
HC asked Centre to file affidavit by April 19
The judges said: “Was there any factual background or reasoning that necessitated this amendment? The petitioner (Kamra) is anticipating some kind of impact due to this amendment.”
The HC has asked the Centre to file affidavit by April 19 and kept the matter for hearing on April 21.
Amendments to IT Act
The Union government promulgated certain amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, on April 6.
The amendment to Rule 3 provides that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology can notify a fact-checking body which is empowered to identify and tag what it considers false or fake online news with respect to any activity of the Central government. Against such content identified by this unit, intermediaries, such as social media companies, will have to act or risk losing their "safe harbour" protections in Section 79 of the IT Act, which allows intermediaries to avoid liabilities for what third parties post on their websites.
Kunal Kamra challenges amendment before HC
Kamra, who claims to be a political satirist and relies on social media platforms to share his content, challenged this amendment before the HC. He said the Rules could potentially lead to his content being arbitrarily blocked or his social media accounts being suspended or deactivated, thus harming him professionally.
Navroz Seervai, Kamra’s counsel, argued that the rule would have a “chilling effect” on the freedom of speech and expression of all citizens of this country, especially those who post comments and videos on political developments as a profession. “
'This amendment is against the interest of the public at large, but only in the interest of the government, ministers, and others in power. The amendment has no provision for a hearing or appeal. This is against the principles of natural justice,’ Seervai said.
Union govt sought time to file affidavit
Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh, appearing for the Union government, sought time to file an affidavit as the petition challenges the validity of the rule.
Kamra in his petition said the rules require social media intermediaries to censor or modify content that relates to the central government, if the government mandated fact-checking body directs them to do so. “The rules are manifestly arbitrary, as they entail the central government acting as a judge and prosecutor in its own cause, thus violating one of the most fundamental principles of natural justice,” states the petition.
These rules will make the government the “sole arbiter of truth or falsity of speech”.
He has sought that the court declare the rules as unconstitutional and restrain the government from taking any action against any individual under the rules.