Published on: 27 September 2023 at 15:57 IST
The Central government informed the Bombay High Court during a hearing that the recent amendments to the Information Technology Rules of 2023 are aimed at controlling fake news rather than targeting satire directed at the government.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), clarified that the rules do not prohibit expressions of opinion or critical analysis of the government but are primarily intended to address the issue of false news.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta emphasized that humor or satire directed at any government is always welcomed, as long as it does not involve abuse or obscenity.
He stressed that there is no intention to restrict humor or satire in any way, and the government’s concern lies solely with false information, especially when disseminated through anonymous media channels.
He stated, “Any humor or satire against the political government… is always welcome in any manner. It cannot be proscribed. The government is only concerned with false facts going around coupled with the fact that we are dealing with anonymous media. There is not a remotest possibility of any humor, any comedy, or any satire coming under this regulation.”
A division bench comprising Justices GS Patel and Neela Gokhale heard petitions challenging the amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023.
The petitioners, including stand-up comic Kunal Kamra, the Editors Guild of India, the Association of Indian Magazines, and the New Broadcast and Digital Association, specifically challenged Rule 3, which empowers fact-check units (FCUs) to identify and label what they consider ‘false or fake online news’ related to government activities.
Mehta explained that the Rules were framed with the fundamental rights of five stakeholders in mind: the internet user, the intermediary, the recipient, the government, and the public at large. He highlighted that the Rules do not contain penal provisions and do not criminalize any content. Instead, they regulate content and resolve disputes between content senders and aggrieved parties.
Mehta clarified that the FCUs would only target content related to government affairs if it is patently false, fake, or misleading, and satire or humor would not be affected.
He also outlined the procedure for content regulation by FCUs, explaining that when FCUs flag content to intermediaries, the intermediaries have three options: remove the content, add a disclaimer indicating that the content has been flagged, or ignore the FCU’s communication.
In response to the court’s question about why the amendment was necessary if intermediaries were not mandated to comply with FCU communications, Mehta stated that any aggrieved party could take an intermediary to court, and the court would ultimately determine the veracity of the content.
Mehta added that the amendment was crucial because it prevented intermediaries from hiding behind the ‘safe harbor’ protection under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act while conducting business and earning substantial profits.