Observing that technology had taken a “dangerous turn”, the Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday said that the government must come up with the guidelines needed to curb the misuse of social media. A two-judge Bench of Justices Deepak Gupta and Aniruddha Bose gave the government a period of three weeks to file an affidavit detailing the steps it had taken so far to frame rules and guidelines on preventing the misuse of social media.
Social media companies such as WhatsApp, Facebook, among others expressing inability in tracing the origin of morphed photos, pornographic content, or terror messages was a serious concern which the government must look at, the two-judge Bench said. The apex court also said that neither it nor the high courts in the country were competent enough to decide on the issue and that it was for the legislative to come up with rules on prevention of social media misuse.
The observations by the court came during the hearing of a transfer petition moved by Facebook. The US-based social media company has approached the apex court with a plea to transfer all the cases pending in different high courts to one place in the SC. Expressing inability to keep defending itself in the various courts, the social media company had said that it would be in the interest of justice if the apex court heard all the cases at one place as conflicting observations by different high courts could also lead to confusion.
There have been several Public Interest Litigations (PILs) filed in the case, with the earliest being moved before the Madras high court in July 2018. The petitioner, Antony Clement Rubin, had sought directions from the court to ask the government to make it mandatory to link Aadhaar or any other government authorised identity proof for authentication of social media profiles. Other similar PIL sought that Facebook should seek some sort of government authorised identity before allowing any person to open an account on its platform.
Though the central government has said that it has no problem if the apex court transfers all the cases to itself and hears them together, the state of Tamilnadu has objected to the same. In its submissions before the top court opposing the transfer, the state had said that companies such as Facebook and WhatsApp had not been cooperating with local law enforcement agencies in the state.
On its part, the central government’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had proposed changes to Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and asked for public comments on the draft amendments that seek to regulate a set of companies that qualify as intermediaries.
The consultation was primarily aimed at the spread of fake news through companies like Facebook-owned WhatsApp. Among other things, the proposed amendments ask the intermediary trace the origin of a fake message. This would mean platforms like WhatsApp would have to weaken their encryption and undermine user privacy. The proposed changes also required an intermediary to provide access to the origin of a message within 72 hours of a government agency making a request for information.
“Broadly the court has said we want to know what the government is doing to regulate social media. The government may use this opportunity to enact the intermediary liability guidelines, but we will only know once the government files its response,” said Sarvjeet Singh, Executive Director at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi.