The Centre on Wednesday told the Bombay High Court it was extending till July 10 its earlier statement that it won’t notify its fact-checking unit to identify fake news against the government on social media, even as two new petitions were filed challenging the recently amended IT Rules.
The Union government had in April told the HC that the fact-checking unit would not be notified till July 5. The statement was made when the court was hearing a petition filed by stand-up comic Kunal Kamra challenging the constitutional validity of the Information Technology Rules.
On Wednesday, a division bench of Justices Gautam Patel and Neela Gokhale was informed that two new petitions have also been filed challenging the Rules.
The petitions filed by the Editors Guild of India and the Association of Indian Magazines claim that the Rules are arbitrary and unconstitutional.
The court said it would hear all the three petitions from July 6.
“We shall take up the petitions for final disposal from July 6 onwards. The petitioners’ counsels shall complete their arguments on July 7 after which we shall set a date for the Union government to put forth their arguments,” the court said.
“In view of the dates fixed for hearing, the Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh says that the statement made earlier by the Centre shall stand extended till July 10,” the court added.
On April 6, 2023, the Union government promulgated certain amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, including a provision for a fact-checking unit to flag fake or false or misleading online content related to the government.
The three petitions sought the court to declare the amended Rules unconstitutional and direct the government to restrain from acting against any individual under the Rules.
The Union government in its affidavit filed in comedian Kamra’s petition in April said that the “role of the fact-checking unit is restricted to any business of the Centre, which may include information about policies, programmes, notifications, rules, regulations, implementation thereof, etc”.
“The fact check unit may only identify fake or false or misleading information and not any opinion, satire or artistic impression. Therefore, the aim of the government regarding the introduction of the impugned provision is explicitly clear and suffers from no purported arbitrariness or unreasonableness as alleged by the petitioner (Kamra),” the Centre’s affidavit had said.
As per the amendments, intermediaries such as social media companies will have to act against content identified by the fact-checking unit or risk losing their safe harbour protections under Section 79 of the IT Act.
“Safe harbour” protections allow intermediaries to avoid liabilities for what third parties post on their websites.