The Madras High Court on Monday, December 6, restrained the Union government from taking any coercive action against digital media firms under the new Information Technology Rules, 2021. The first bench of Acting Chief Justice MN Bhandari and Justice PD Audikesavalu gave the injunction when a new Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition from the Indian Broadcasters and Digital Media Foundation came up for hearing on Monday.
"The respondents (Centre) are restrained from taking any coercive action without the permission of the Court," the bench said and posted the matter for further hearing on January 25. The petition challenged the provisions of Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, brought in February this year.
In September this year, the Madras High Court had stayed two sub-sections under IT Rules 2021's Rule 9, which provide for a three-tier structure for addressing the grievances made in relation to publishers, under the Code of Ethics annexed to the rules. A bench of then Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice PD Audikesavulu passed the order on two petitions that were filed challenging the validity of the IT Rules. Musician TM Krishna had filed a public interest litigation, while the Digital News Publishers Association, and journalist Mukund Padmanabhan had also filed a writ petition in the matter.
The Madras High Court is not the only court hearing challenges to the new IT Rules. Earlier, the petitioner's senior counsel alleged that the Union government was initiating penal action as per the provisions of the Rules, even though the Bombay High Court had granted an interim stay on the IT Rules a couple of months ago. The Bombay High Court had on August 14 this year stayed the operation of sub-rules (1) and (3) of Rule 9 of the said Rules of 2021. The Kerala High Court had also passed a similar order restraining the Union government from taking any action.
WhatsApp has also challenged the IT Rules in the Delhi High Court. In August, a bench headed by Chief Justice DN Patel had sought the Union government's stand on WhatsApp petition challenging new rule on the ground it violates the right to privacy and is unconstitutional. WhatsApp's parent company Facebook has also mounted a similar challenge to the rule.
In its plea, WhatsApp had said that the traceability requirement forced it break end-to-end encryption and thus infringe upon the fundamental rights to privacy and free speech of the hundreds of millions of citizens using its platform to communicate privately and securely.
The Union government, in its response, has said that the petition by WhatsApp is not maintainable as a challenge to the constitutionality of any Indian law is not maintainable at the instance of a foreign commercial entity.
With agency inputs