The Bombay high court on Monday rapped the Union government for failing to approach the Supreme Court for over a month seeking clubbing of all the petitions challenging the amendment to Information Technology Rules which have come under severe criticism.
Two petitions have been filed in the Bombay high court challenging the new IT Rules as being violative of Articles 14 (right to equality), Article 19(a) (freedom of speech and expression) and Article 19(1)(g) (freedom to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business).
Similar 13 other petitions have been filed in various high courts of the country, including in the Supreme Court. The union government has sought that all the petitions pertaining to the challenge to the amendment to the IT Act be transferred to the Supreme Court. The matter is likely to come up for hearing before the SC on Tuesday.
The petitions in the HC were filed in the first week of July by digital news web portal The Leaflet and journalist Nikhil Wagle.
A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice Girish Kulkarni asked Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Anil Singh: “Why did you wait for so long? In over a month you couldn’t get the order of transfer?”
Singh informed the court that they have already filed the transfer petition, but it has not been taken up for hearing. He also said that only the Kerala high court has stayed the amendment to the IT Act whereas other high courts have not granted any relief to the petitioners.
Darius Khambata, counsel for The Leaflet, argued that the Rules have a chilling effect on authors or anyone who wants to put anything up on the internet, because they are so wide. “The Regulations are so vague that it can haul up anyone for publishing anything online,” argued Khambata.
Terming the new rules as draconian, Khambata said that it seeks to monitor, censor and regulate free speech on the internet. “Ex facie the new rules are ultra vires of the IT Act which seeks to regulate publishing on electronic media. the original IT Act didn’t purport to regulate content. Through the amendment, the government wants to regulate the content. It's a draconian assault on free speech and democracy,” said Khambata.
While arguing on journalistic conduct, Khambata said that the Press Council of India has its own rules which were broad and wide. These self-regulations are sufficient. Law gives the right to defamation but it doesn’t give the right to the government to suppress free speech.
“Essence of democracy is criticism. It will never do good to a democracy to regulate free speech. This is a brazen attempt to regulate content. Investigative journalism is sought to be controlled. They don’t want sting operations,” said Khambata.
Wagle’s advocate, Abhay Nevagi, argued that according to the amended rules, social media platforms like WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook are required to use Artificial Intelligence and censor content which would eventually lead to violating privacy of citizens. “By such an amendment, the government is giving permission to social media platforms to store and read data of citizens. This can be misused and even the data can be sold. We saw this in the US during the last elections”.
HC has kept the petitions for hearing on Tuesday after the matter is heard by the Supreme Court. The judges said that they propose to hear the Union government’s reply to the petitions, in case the Supreme Court does not transfer these petitions to itself.