Government claims new IT laws to be safe and empowering for audiences

The Centre told the Delhi High Court on Tuesday that the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, apply to news websites because they seek to prevent misuse of freedom of the press by empowering the audience and the grievance redressal mechanism is in line with the spirit of the public’s right to know.

It also justified the establishment of a government oversight apparatus with the authority to delete, modify, and block publisher content.

The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology responded to a slew of petitions filed by various digital media organisations by claiming that “fake and misleading audio-visual news” on digital media has resulted in “innocent people’s deaths” and public order disruptions in the recent past.

“The rules for evaluating audio-visual news items on the basis of the right to freedom of expression and speech may differ from those for other types of free speech. The guidelines only allow audience members to alert publishers to content that may be in violation of the Code of Ethics. Even in such cases, any subsequent action is only feasible on strict grounds and according to established procedure,” the Centre stated in its 152-page response.

The Centre also told the court that the IT Rules establish a civil grievance redress mechanism that is “devoid of any police powers,” and that the decision on whether a particular piece of content violates the Code of Ethics is a deliberative process involving the publisher, their representative self-regulatory bodies, and the government.

The government stated there has been no major change in the production of material since the guidelines were announced, citing data on the number of pages created on the websites of seven television channels and the number of tweets on their Twitter accounts.

According to the government, over 1,800 digital media publishers have designated the Grievance Redress Officer and provided their information.

The Centre also stated that the IT Rules do not include any provisions for monitoring digital media and that there is no necessity for publishers to register with the ministry in advance. However, it stated that the Inter-Departmental Committee, as part of the oversight system, has the authority to suggest content banning based on the grounds set forth in Section 69A of the IT Act.

Regarding the ability to delete and modify content, the Centre stated that the option for content blocking is an extreme measure used only in exceptional cases and that publishers have the right to be heard by the inter-departmental committee.

While the right to freedom of speech and expression, including the freedom of the press, is vital for a vibrant democracy like India, the rights of the audience “who believe and act upon erroneous news” must also be considered, according to the report. It stated that the news audience cannot be viewed as passive customers without any opportunity to participate in the accountability process.