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Bombay HC stays enforcement of code of ethics provisions under new IT rules

  • Category
    Ethics
  • Published
    19th Aug, 2021

Context

The Bombay High Court stayed the implementation of Rule 9 (1) and (3) of the recently-notified Information Technology (Guidelines for intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

  • The provisions deal with the code of ethics under the new IT rules.

Background

  • The Centrehad notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, under the Information Technology Act, 2000, in February this year.
  • The rules, which were enforced from May, regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content, virtually bringing them, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.
  • For these rules, pleas were filed before the High Court (filed by digital news website The Leaflet). They sought an interim stay on the new IT rules.
  • The petitioners had challenged the following sections of the new IT rules:
    • 9 (Observance and Adherence to Code of Ethics)
    • 14 (Constitution of Inter-Departmental Committee)
    • 16 (Blocking of Information in Case of Emergency)
  • The petitioners argued that new IT rules were in contradiction to the fundamental rights under
    • Article 14 (equality before law)
    • Article 19 (freedom of speech and expression)
    • Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty)
  • The petition argued that the new rules were unconstitutionally restricting the freedom of the press. The rules were “seeking to effectively monitor and censor speech in the internet by a different Ministry, the most draconian law on free speech of recent times”.

Analysis

Reasons behind the court’s decision

  • A bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice GS Kulkarni observed that the provisions were an intrusion on the right to freedom of speech and expression and beyond the substantive law of Information Technology Act that is in effect since 2009.
    • Rule 9 (1)says that digital media content publishers must observe and adhere to the code of ethics in the IT guidelines.
    • Rule 9 (3) provides a three-tier structure to address the grievances made in relation to publishers to ensure that the code of ethics is followed.
  • The High Court, however, did not stay the implementation of Rule 9 (2) that deals with action against publishers when they are in contravention of the law.
  • The bench also refused to stay the Rules 14 and 16 of the IT guidelines.
    • Rule 14 deals with the formation of an inter-departmental committee as an oversight mechanism for digital media. The committee can recommend the Ministry of Information and Technology to initiate action against publishers based on grievances.
    • Rule 16 deals with the powers of the government to block content “in case of an emergency”.

"Dissent in democracy is vital…. For proper administration of the State, it is healthy to invite criticism of all those who are in public service for the nation to have a structured growth, but with the 2021 Rules in place, one would have to think twice before criticizing any such personality, even if the writer/editor/publisher may have good reasons to do so".

Ethics in India IT Rules 2021

  • The India IT Rules 2021 include an appendix on 'Code of Ethics' that a publishing body, journalist, an intermediary or any other person posting content online must adhere to.
  • These norms include an advisory code of conduct prescribed by the Press Council of India(PCI) and the Cable TV network (CTVN) Rules.
  • The Bombay High Court pointed out that the IT Act itself did not have a provision for bringing in such censure on online content.
  • The PCI and CTVN norms were formulated under separate statutory legislation but the Union government tried "illegally" to grant an "exalted status" of mandatory compliance to such norms.

Court’s views on the provision (Code of Ethics)

  • People would be starved of the liberty of thought and feel suffocated to exercise their right of freedom of speech and expression, if they are made to live in present times of content regulation on the internet with the Code of Ethics hanging over their head as the Sword of Damocles.

Major ethical issues faced by IT

  • IT professionals, by nature, have access to a boatload of sensitive information.
  • Since they are employed in various workplaces — including healthcare, business, and banking — the information that they are able to view and manipulate can raise security issues.
  • Major ethical issues faced by Information Technology (IT) are:
  • Personal Privacy
  • Access Right
  • Harmful Actions
  • Patents
  • Copyright
  • Trade Secrets
  • Liability
  • Piracy

Conclusion

Despite the very real breaches of privacy that can occur in IT work, there is currently no standard policy of IT ethics. Applying codes of ethics in IT can help minimize harm and prevent the misuse of sensitive information.

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