Having been approached by a consortium of Internet Service Providers, the Madras High Court has issued a welcome clarification of its “John Doe order” issued in favour of RK Productions for the films 3 and Dammu. Designed to protect against potential offences by yet-unidentified persons, the sweeping scope of the order left a very wide, undefined scope to ISPs dealing with potentially infringing material. The ISPs over-complied, a host of file-sharing websites were barred from Indian servers overnight — oh, and “Anonymous” got more annoyed. Note here that the vagueness of the order extended to not specifying any infringing websites in particular.
Following the representation from the ISPs, the Court has provided them a specific directive. The new order states that the interim injunction was granted only with respect to the particular URL which featured the infringing movie, and not the entire website. No more blocking entire websites — the ISPs are now required to be informed about the particulars of where the infringing movie is kept within 48 hours.
The clarification couldn’t have come at a more vital time, and will hopefully serve as a precedent to curb an alarming practice that can be traced back to 2002. Back then, the Delhi High Court was approached in a matter concerning the unauthorised transmission of Ten Sports by unlicensed cable operators. The result was the Court’s first John Doe order with respect to media transmission: a commissioner was appointed to search premises of unnamed cable operators and seize evidence by taking photographs and video films. This particular order was then relied on by the Court almost a decade later in pre-emptively injuncting piracy of UTV Software Communication’s Saat Khoon Maaf and Thank You. The trend escalated from there, with similar orders being obtained for a number of films including Don 2, Bodyguard, Kahaani and Department, to name a few.
Where the last few years have seen a steadily rising output of orders largely from the Delhi and Madras High Court, just last week it was the Bombay High Court that joined the fray. Approached by Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, it passed a John Doe pre-emptively banning the piracy of Viacom’s Gangs of Wasseypur prior to its June 22 release. Considering the Bombay High Court’s noted apprehension in granting ex-parte orders, this decision looked set to add further momentum to the John Doe juggernaut.
Instead, we get the Madras High Court’s welcome restraint. That vague injunctions are an abuse of process is a principle that has been noted time and again, with the Delhi High Court even noting that “vague and general injunction of anticipatory nature can never be granted”. This is coupled with the larger access to information and free speech issue that has been raised more vocally following the ire with the mass block of file-sharing websites. The antecedents to this scenario may well be the media infrastructure cases of the ‘50s and ‘60s, where newspaper content was indirectly being regulated by way of regulation of newsprint, advertisement space, etc. Recognising these indirect control mechanisms in their ultimate speech-restricting form, the Supreme Court struck them down as unreasonable restrictions to the right to free expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
Prevention isn’t always better than cure. The Madras High Court has thankfully taken one step in the direction. What is left dangling is the other big question — that of the intermediary rules. There may now be a barrier to blocking of entire websites in this manner, but as so many internet users have found, one doesn’t have to necessarily approach the Courts if they want internet service providers to take down content: the ISPs are happy to do that for free. As a Centre for Internet and Society study found, takedown requests sent to ISPs, no matter how trivial or flimsy, will for the most part be met by acquiescence of the order. Without appropriate checks and balances, the intermediary will over-comply.
While the ISPs’ intervention before the Madras High Court is an encouraging sign, it doesn’t mean that the arbitrary takedowns under the intermediary rules will cease to happen. The digital media site Medianama quotes an ISP representative citing concern that ISPs were being wrongfully vilified on the Internet — and (significantly) that it would adversely impact their business if video streaming was disabled for users. The same commercial considerations wouldn’t likely stand when it comes to the bit-by-bit requests that come forward under the IT rules. Along with focusing attention on the High Court’s clarification, we need to sustain the movement to strike down the intermediary rules and push for a more transparent and fair mechanism.
The writer is working on copyright and media law at the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore