IT Rules seek to prevent misuse of press freedom, Centre tells Delhi HC

The Centre has submitted that although the right to freedom of speech and expression is critical for India, citizens cannot be treated as passive consumers

e4m by exchange4media Staff
Updated: Sep 2, 2021 8:51 AM
Delhi HC

Defending the legality of Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, the union government has told the Delhi High Court that the rules seek to prevent the misuse of the freedom of press and protect the citizens from fake news in the digital media space which used to be largely unregulated.

In its counter affidavit filed on a challenge to the constitutional validity of the new IT Rules, the centre has submitted that although the right to freedom of speech and expression, including the freedom of press, is critical for a vibrant democracy like India, citizens cannot be treated as passive consumers.

The affidavit has been filed jointly by the Ministry Of Information and Broadcasting and Ministry Of Electronics and Information Technology.

It also contended that there have been past incidents of disinformation on digital media that led to disturbance of public order. It also asserted that digital media allows sensational content being re-circulated in a different context leading to misinterpretation by the audience, making it susceptible to being used as fake news.

"IT Rules seek to prevent the misuse of the freedom of press by empowering the audience with a mechanism to raise their grievances related to the content being published by the digital news publishers through a grievance redressal mechanism with an emphasis on the self-regulatory architecture for digital news publishers, and are therefore not only within the ambit of the Act, but also fulfill the object sought to be achieved by the (IT) Act," the counter affidavit says.

"Before the notification of the Rules, digital news media was largely unregulated. It is submitted that before the notification of the Rules, no such mechanism was currently in operation with regard to news on digital media, thereby leading to a discriminatory imbalance within the news media ecosystem with respect to content on traditional media," it added.

The centre also argued that the regulation of media content in the electronic form, including news and current affairs content and online curated content, is well within the scope of the IT Act and the new rules do not provide any additional restrictions apart from what is already prohibited by existing statutes.

It also noted that the reach of digital media is far wider than traditional media, which makes it a powerful tool for information campaigns by a foreign state and non-state actors to influence public opinion in any nation. "Online platforms, for commercial reasons, may have a tendency to retain the consumer on their platform for a longer period. This results in the proliferation and spread of news content that appears to be sensational. The risk of false or misleading information is greater over the internet as the same can be spread rapidly within the society," the affidavit said.

The centre said that an economic environment marked by competition for eyeballs and regulatory vacuum with respect to the content on digital media has led to spread fake news and other potentially harmful content without any accountability of digital news publishers, it added.

It also pointed out that there has been no discernible impact of the new IT rules on digital content and over 1,800 digital media publishers, over 97% of them being publishers of news and current affairs content, have appointed a Grievance Redressal Officer (Level-I), and furnished their information to the Ministry.

The counter affidavit was filed on the petitions by Foundation for Independent Journalism, The Wire, Quint Digital Media Ltd and Pravda Media Foundation which is the parent company of Alt News. The petitioners have challenged the constitutional validity of the IT Rules and have  urged the HC to strike down of the specific part of the IT Rules on the ground that it violates Article 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the constitution.

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