Delhi HC seeks response from Centre on petition against new IT Rules

The plea claimed it sought to regulate online news portals by imposing government oversight and a vaguely worded ‘Code of Ethics’.

The Delhi High Court on Tuesday sought a response from the Centre on a petition challenging the new IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, claiming it seeks to regulate online news portals by imposing government oversight and a vaguely worded ‘Code of Ethics’.

A Bench of Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh issued notices to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) and Ministry Of Information & Broadcasting on the plea filed by Foundation for Independent Journalism, a trust that owns digital news portal The Wire.

The petition argued that the new IT Rules issued on February 25, 2021, were “palpably illegal” in seeking to control and regulate digital news media when the parent statute nowhere provided for such a remit. It said the new IT Rules had “profound and serious harms for digital news media” and was destructive of their rights.

Other petitioners in the case include M.K. Venu, Director and Founding Editor, The Wire, and Dhanya Rajendran, founder & Editor-In-Chief, The News Minute.

The plea stated that the IT Rules, 2021, introduced two distinct sets of regulations — one, due diligence norms to be followed by ‘intermediaries’ and two, ‘Code of Ethics’ ought to be adhered to by ‘publishers’, along with a three-tier compliance mechanism.

While ‘intermediaries’ were recognised and regulated by the IT Act, the plea said that the new IT Rules laid down a separate ‘Code of Ethics’ for the two kinds of publishers — publishers of news and current affairs content, and publishers of online curated content.

“…the parent (IT) Act does not recognise digital news media as a separate category of entities and does not seek to subject them or their content to any set of special regulations,” said the plea filed through advocates Prasanna S., Vinoothna Vinjam and Bharat Gupta.

“The content to be regulated by the parent Act, as offences, was limited to sexually explicit material, child pornography, showing private parts of individuals, cyber terrorism, etc. to be prosecuted and tried by normal courts,” it added.

“The IT Rules, 2021, expand the scope of the Act even further by providing for a Code of Ethics and a three-tier regulatory system to administer a loose-ranging Code of Ethics, that contains wide and vague terms as ‘half-truths’, ‘good taste’, ‘decency’,” the petition said.

“The IT Rules, 2021, provide for an oversight mechanism, including the setting up of an Inter-Departmental Committee which has the power to hear grievances regarding compliance with the said Code of Ethics, as well as the power to recommend to the Ministry of I&B, draconian measures such as ordering the deletion, modification of content or blocking the same,” the plea contended.

It argued that the rules framed under the IT Act could not set up an adjudicatory mechanism parallel to Courts of law, which was completely beyond the object and scope of the parent Act.

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