Centre for Internet & Society

Ujwala Uppaluri provides a constitutional analysis of the Information Technology (Intermediaries' Guidelines) Rules notified in April 2011, and examines its compatibility with Articles 14, 19, 21 of the Constitution of India.

Summary of Salient Provisions

The Information Technology (Intermediaries’ Guidelines) Rules, 2011 (‘the Intermediary Guidelines’) were notified in April, 2011 as rules enacted in exercise of powers conferred under section 87(2)(zg) read with Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (as amended) (‘the IT Act’).

Rule 2 of the Intermediary Guidelines imports definitions for key terms from the IT Act. Notably, this includes an importation of Section 2 (w) by Rule 2 (i), which defines “intermediary” broadly in the following terms:

“intermediary”, with respect to any particular electronic records, means any person who on behalf of another person receives, stores or transmits that record or provides any service with respect to that record and includes telecom service providers, network service providers, internet service providers, web-hosting service providers, search engines, online payment sites, online-auction sites, online-market places and cyber cafes;

Rule 3 whose margin note indicates that it is limited to due diligence measures to be adhered to by intermediaries nevertheless also raises other liabilities by creating a regime to censor content, pre-publication as well as once content has been made publically available online.

Sub-rule (2) of Rule 3 inventories the classes of content which are deemed actionable, with only clause (i), clause (c), clause (e) and, arguably clause (h), of that rule addressing the national interest, public order and security restrictions cognizable under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. The remainder of grounds includes private claims such as content which “belongs to another person”[1], or otherwise infringes proprietary rights[2], or is “defamatory”[3]. Still others are terminologically indeterminate and purely subjective, with the terms “grossly harmful”, “harassing” and “disparaging” being examples.

This sub-rule also includes a number of redundancies. While there is reference to libelous as well as defamatory content in clause (b), it is well established that Indian law does not admit of the former concept, instead dissolving the common law distinction between the two to treat them alike.[4] There is also clause (e), which prohibits content which is all ready illegal for violating the provisions of an existing statute and the residuary phrasing of the clause (b)’s reference to content which is “otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever”.

The sub-rules immediately following the list in Rule 3(2) address the consequences of users publishing content listed in that rule:

Sub-rule (3) of rule 3 provides that intermediaries will not knowingly deal in any manner whatsoever, whether by hosting, publication, transmission or otherwise, with any content of the types that are listed in the previous clause.

Sub-rule (4) of rule 3 creates a complaints mechanism in respect of content incompatible with Rule 3 (2) by requiring intermediaries to disable access to offending content within 36 hours of obtaining knowledge themselves or on being brought to “actual knowledge” by an “affected person”. The Intermediaries Guidelines do nothing to clarify what would amount to “actual knowledge”, to indicate in unambiguous terms, which parties would have sufficient locus to bring complaints in order to be deemed an “affected person” for the purposes of these provisions or to suggest that there is a procedure or timeline for action by the intermediary, such that requirements such notice to the author of the content and time for the preparation of a defence by the author and/or the intermediary are accounted for.  Rule 3 (4) also requires that all information which is taken down be preserved, along with “associated records” for a duration of atleast ninety days for investigative purposes.

Sub-rule (5) of rule 3 mandates that intermediaries inform users that non-compliance with the Intermediary Guidelines, inter alia, is a ground for the exercise of their right to terminate access or usage rights and remove non-compliant content.

Finally, sub-rule (11) of rule 3 requires intermediaries to name Grievance Officers to receive complaints on any matters relating to the computer resources made available by the intermediary, including for non-compliance or harm in terms of Rule 3 (2). This officer is bound to respond to the complaint within one month from the date of receipt of the complaint.

In the result, the Intermediary Guidelines create a two-track system by which private censorship is legitimized online. In the first place, intermediaries can take down content on their own motion where they are of the opinion that the content falls under any of the grounds enumerated in Rule 3 (2) or, alternatively, do so in response to a complaint, in terms of Rule 3 (4).

In addition to the provisions relating to censorship, the Intermediary Guidelines also provide for information to be given over to government agencies making a request with lawful authority and in writing under sub-rule (7) of rule 3, for data protection measures in accordance with the Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Information) Rules, 2011 notified under Section 43A of the IT Act to be adhered to (sub-rule (8) of rule 3) and for intermediaries to report and share information realting to cyber security with CERT-In (sub-rule (9) of rule 3).

Areas of Infirmity

It is doubtful whether the Intermediary Guidelines could pass constitutional muster, on several grounds:

Compatibility with Article 19 (1) (a) and (2)

(a) Applicability of Article 19 (2) to Rule 3 (2) Grounds

In Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras[5] the Supreme Court held that the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) includes the freedom to propogate and disseminate ideas. It also held that very narrow and stringent limits govern the permissibility of legislative abridgment of the right of free speech. Ordinarily, any abridgement of free speech by means of censorship must be compatible with one or more of the grounds provided for under Article 19 (2), and the Supreme Court held in Express Newspapers (Private) Ltd. v. Union of India[6]that limitations on the exercise of the Article 19(1)(a) right which do not fall within Article 19(2) cannot be upheld.

Further, the right to free speech applies across all media, and the internet is no exception. In Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting v. Cricket Association of Bengal[7], the Supreme Court reflected the understanding that where media are different, such that the treatment accorded to them must be different in accordance with that indicia of difference, it will treat them as such in order to uphold fundamental rights. More specifically, in Ajay Goswami v. Union of India[8], the Supreme Court opined (in obiter) that the internet, as a unique medium of expression, deserved a different standard of protection than other mediums that have preceded it.

Rule 3 (2) of the Intermediary Guidelines, which lists the grounds for censorship, is not complaint with Article 19 (2) for two reasons:

First, many of the grounds mentioned have no constitutional basis whatsoever. Rule 3 (2) prohibits, inter alia, content which “grossly harmful”, “harassing”, “invasive of another’s privacy”, “hateful”, “disparaging”, “grossly offensive” or “menacing”, in addition to content which is simply illegal, and should be actionable ex post rather than prohibited ex ante (content infringing intellectual property under Rule 3 (2) (d), for example). Most of the terms employed are not legal standards, but merely subjective indicators of personal sensitivities, while still others though legal do not figure in Article 19 (2). Since the whole scheme of the Intermediary Guidelines is premised on these extra-constitutional grounds, they are, as a whole, subject to being to being struck down.

Second, the restriction is unreasonable because instead of preserving rights online in accordance with Ajay Goswami, the Intermediary Guidelines unjustifiably abridge the right to speak and receive information on the internet. The Intermediary Guidelines overreach in their scope, by including as actionable content which is not itself punishable when communicated via any other medium. For example, disparaging speech, as long as it is not defamatory, is not criminalised in India, and cannot be because the Constitution does not allow for it. Similarly, content about gambling in print is not unlawful, but now all Internet intermediaries are required to remove any content that promotes gambling.

(b) Nature of Censorship: Directness of Censorship and Legitimacy of Private and Prior Censorship

In judging whether a statute is constitutional, the effect that the statute will have on the fundamental rights of citizens must be examined. The Supreme Court held in Bennett Coleman & Co. v. Union of India[9] that the test was to examine whether the effect of an impugned action was to abridge a fundamental right, notwithstanding its object.

Further, while it is true in light of the Supreme Court’s holdings in Prakash Jha Productions v. Union of India[10] that pre-censorship is permissible within the Indian constitutional scheme, this permissibility is qualified. Prior censorship may be undertaken only within closely regulated circumstances, such as under the grounds in the Cinematograph Act, 1952, and even then, only by an appropriately empowered governmental entity.

The Intermediary Guidelines create mechanisms for the abridgement of the freedom of speech which amount to indirect and unjustifiable prior censorship, contrary to Article 19 (2):

Firstly, while the state does not itself censor under these rules, it has empowered private, commercial entities to do so vide the Intermediary Guidelines. These rules thus transfer the executive power of censorship to private intermediaries. This amounts to an indirect form of censorship for the purposes of the Bennett Coleman test and has the result of increased censorship on the Internet because the state granted legislative sanction to such a system, although it does not censor by itself or through a state agency. The Intermediary Guidelines, and specifically Rule 3 (4) read with Rule 3 (2), place a burden on intermediaries to decide on the lawfulness of content as a pre-condition for their statutory exemption from liability. An intermediary, on receiving a complaint, to ensure that it continues to receive the protection offered by Section 79 of the IT Act, will be forced to disable access to the content posted by a user. Thus, the direct effect of the rules will be strict censoring of content posted on-line by users. The rules will have a direct effect on the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1) of the Constitution unreasonable restrictions on fundamental rights, that are imposed by a statute or executive orders are liable to be struck down as unconstitutional.

Secondly, while prior censorship is permissible only in a strictly limited range of cases, the Intermediary Guidelines allow for an unrestrained and unlimited degree of prior and arguably invisible censorship. Rule 3 of the Intermediary Guidelines clearly envisages such a system of prior censorship. Whereas the consequences for passively displaying content incompatible with Rule 3(2) would be a complete waiver and dissolution of the Section 79 immunity that would ordinary accrue to neutral intermediaries, intermediaries or complainants have no obligation in respect of ensuring the tenability of complaints and the grounds cited in them. The Intermediary Guidelines do not draw a distinction between arbitrary actions of an intermediary and take-downs subsequent to a request. Further, the inclusion of a residuary clause in Rule 3 (2) (b) allowing pre-censorship of content which is “unlawful in any manner whatever”, also indicates that the Intermediary Guidelines allow the use of the exceptional instrument of not only allows private censorship, but that they actively encourage it as the default rule rather than the exception without any justification whatsoever.

(c) Vagueness and Overbreadth: Possibility for Over-Censorship

Vagueness in the terms of a restriction to free speech is grounds for it to be struck down, even where the ground is apparently broadly constitutional. The Supreme Court held in Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. v. Union of India[11] that the Constitution must be interpreted in order to enable citizens to enjoy their rights to fullest measure, subject to limited permissible restrictions. In Romesh Thapar[12] the Supreme Court also held that a legislation authorizing the imposition of restrictions on free speech in language wide enough to cover restrictions which are permissible as well as extra-constitutional will be held to be wholly unconstitutional.

The grounds listed in Rule 3 (2) of the Intermediary Guidelines are highly subjective, private interest grounds which are not defined either in the Intermediary Guidelines or in the IT Act itself. These include terms such as “grossly harmful”, “harassing”, “invasive of another’s privacy”, “hateful”, “disparaging”, “grossly offensive” or “menacing”. Consequently, the Intermediary Guidelines constitute unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech, with Rule 3 (2) containing vague terms which, in addition to falling beyond the purview of Article 19(2), cover only private and subjective grounds, incapable of objective definition or application.

Further, the Intermediary Guidelines do no precisely define the term “affected person” employed in Rule 3 (4). Thus, complaints from any party, including those uninvolved or unaffected by content must all be complied with, without qualification.

In the result, the vagueness of the grounds in Rule 3 (2) and the diffuse terminology of “affected person” leaves Rule 3 (2) grounds serving as placeholders for whatever claim a complainant, having no locus whatsoever, chooses to bring, without regard for whether it is constitutional or even legal. Online content is thus treated as presumptively illegal and take down of content as the presumptive course of action. Additionally, there is a further consequence to the vagueness and overbreadth of the terms in Rule 3 (2): because of the indeterminacy in the grounds listed thereunder, intermediaries tasked with enforcing the law will tend to err on the side of caution and censor, rather than keep speech accessible online. There is empirical evidence to show that cautious intermediaries will over-censor and over comply with complaints in order to avoid liability under Section 79 of the IT Act.[13]

(d) Contravention of International Human Rights Norms & Horizontal Application

The censorship regime constructed by the Intermediary Guidelines is non-compliant not only with domestic requirements under the Constitution, but also with India’s obligations under international human rights law under Articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘UDHR’) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (‘ICCPR’), under the UN Human Rights Council’s  Report of the Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression (2011)[14](‘Special Rapporteur’s Report’) and the UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Internet Freedom (2012)[15] (‘UN Internet Freedom Resolution’).

While the ICCPR as well as the UDHR guarantee a right to free speech “through any…media of…choice” in their respective Articles 19, the Special Rapporteur’s Report and the UN Internet Freedom Resolution recognize the need for special efforts to be undertaken by states to preserve free speech on the internet. The former document justifies censorship only in the most limited circumstances and makes specific mention of the commercial interests that may be implicated in delivering free speech.

Through the Intermediary Guidelines,  the Indian state creates a system by which the right to free speech can be systematically violated by private and undisclosed entities and even empowers them to do so, without imposing any constitutional safeguards whatsoever. Thus, egregious violations of the right to free speech and expression are a direct and inevitable consequence of the Intermediary Guidelines. To the degree that the Indian Supreme Court has enagaged with free speech online, it appears from Ajay Goswami that it would apply standards consistent with international law obligations to rectify the Intermediary Guidelines to meet them.

Further, the Indian Supreme Court has held, where necessary for their true enjoyement, that fundamental rights may involve a degree of horizontality in their application. In other words, private action could be guided by fundamental rights, such as in Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan[16] which evidences the Supreme Court’s willingness to hold that private entities could be held to constitutional and international human rights law standards where that is necessary for the real rather than illusory enjoyment of fundamental rights.

As a result, the Intermediary Guidelines are also liable to be struck down for their failure to recognize and account for the role of private interests while empowering them with the right to curtail fundamental rights.

Compatibility with Article 21

(a) Adverse Impact on Privacy (and consequently on Free Speech)

A constitutional right to privacy has been read into Article 21’s guarantee of life and personal liberty in several instances by the Supreme Court. The State is consequently under an obligation to refrain from interfering, whether by itself or through any of its agencies, with private lives and spaces. By the same coin, laws which encourage unwarranted state or societal intrusions into private life will contravene the victim’s Article 21 right. In People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India,[17] the Supreme Court held that Article 21 privacy protected individuals against the interception and monitoring of private communications by the state in the absence of sufficient safeguards.

Also, an individual’s privacy interests in information relating to him are not dissolved merely because information is not confidential or because another entity has some property interest in that information. In District Registrar and Collector, Hyderabad v. Canara Bank[18], the Supreme Court recognized that even where the search of private documents was concerned, Article 21 protected “persons not places”, i.e., that the privacy interest did not vest in property or communications but, rather, in the rightsholder himself.

The Intermediary Guidelines include no limits whatsoever on the scope of disclosures that government agencies can demand or expect to retain, in contravention of Article 21.

Specifically, Rule 3 (4), which requires data retention for a statutory minimum of ninety days of content taken down as well as “associated records”, violates users’ rights to privacy. In addition to the financial and technical burden (in storing and securing data) imposed by the Intermediary Guidelines in requiring potentially unlimited data retention by intermediaries, there is no clarity as to what or how much information precisely must be held in the form of “associated records”. Instead of subjecting data to limited and closely qualified retention by private intermediaries, and thus limiting the impairment of the fundamental right to privacy to the minimum possible degree necessary, Rule 3 (4) imposes blanket data retention requirements.

Further, Rule 3 (7), which makes any information held by an intermediary subject to being disclosed to the government upon request is also inconsistent with the requirement that the right to life and personal liberty be violated only in accordance with fair, just and reasonable procedures. Notwithstanding that Rule 3 (7) is consistent with Section 67C of the IT Act and specific rules framed in regard to the surveillance of communications, it is also unconstitutional because it fails to include any safeguards whatsoever in the process of surveillance. These would include, as minimum obligatory conditions in light of PUCL, the requirement that the surveilled be informed of the surveillance and be allowed to challenge its propriety ex ante or its procedural regularity ex post, or atleast administrative or judicial review ex parte.

(b)  Non-compliance with Due Process and Natural Justice Requirements

Article 21 explicitly includes a due process guarantee. This means that the right to life and personal liberty, and its constituent rights, can be interfered with only through constitutionally consistent procedures. A cornerstone of fair procedure, compliant with the rule of law, is the notion of natural justice. Consequently, Article 21 contemplates that the procedure by which fundamental rights are curtailed will satisfy natural justice principles.

In Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India,[19] the Supreme Court held that natural justice was not a rigid or mechanical term, but one that referred to those practices and principles that would ensure “fair play in action”. In addition the Court held that all deviations from natural justice requirements must be supported by a sufficiently justificatory “compelling state interest”. Specifically, in Union of India v. Tulsiram Patel[20], the Supreme Court held that the principle of natural justice required the satisfaction of the audi alteram partem rule, which consisted of several requirements, including the requirement that a person against whose detriment an action is taken be informed of the case against him and be afforded a full and fair opportunity to respond.  Finally, in M.C. Mehta v. Union of India[21] the Supreme Court held that the absence of due notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond would vitiate any holding to the rightsholder’s detriment.

The Intermediary Guidelines fail to satisfy the requirement of natural justice, and particularly the rights to prior notice as well as that of the affected party to a hearing:

By requiring that content be taken down swiftly (within 36 hours of complaint, under Rule 3 (4)) and by failing to require the author of the content to be informed of the complaint and its contents, the Intermediary Guidelines violate the author’s right to notice and consequently affect his/her right to prepare and present a defence at all. In practice, authors of content which is the subject of a complaint may never know of the complaint or even of the fact of the take down, given the absence of any mechanism under the rules by which they could have been informed. In a scheme for silent, invisible censorship, authors are never afforded an opportunity to challenge the take down, just as they have no opportunity to rebut the initial complaint. In addition, at any event, it is the intermediary, a biased private entity whose immunity under Section 79 of the IT Act could be called into question based on the outcome, who must make the determination as to the legality of the content.

While there is nothing to prohibit intermediaries from informing authors on the receipt of a complaint, the limited time within which action must be taken means that such intermediaries would risk liability for non-compliance with the compliant and a waiver of their Section 79 immunity, where the content is not taken down, whether because communication does not occur within the 36 hour timeframe or because an author elects to resist takedown. By creating a system in which takedowns necessarily occur in response to complaints, irrespective of their legitimacy, the Intermediary Guidelines presume and rule in favour of the complainants and in favour of (private) censorship instead of presuming in favour of the preservation of the fundamental right to free speech, or even maintaining neutrality between the two ends.

Compatibility with Article 14

The guarantee of “equal protection of laws” requires equality of treatment of persons who are similarly situated, without discrimination inter se. It is a corollary that that persons differently situated cannot be treated alike. In E. P. Royappa v. State of Tamil Nadu[22] the Supreme Court held that arbitrary or unfair actions necessarily run counter to Article 14. The Supreme Court explained in M/S Sharma Transport v. Government of Andhra Pradesh[23] that arbitrary actions are actions which are unreasonable, non-rational done capriciously or without adequate determining principle, reason or in accordance with due judgment. In addition, Article 14 also requires that state action be reasonable. In Mahesh Chandra v. Regional Manager, U.P. Financial Corporation[24] it was held that discretion must be exercised objectively, and that what is not fair or just will be unreasonable, and subject to being struck down as unconstitutional.Additionally, Article 14 also requires that the basis upon which classifications are undertaken for the purposes of same or differential treatment be reasoned and fair. The Supreme Court held in Sube Singh v. State of Haryana[25] that the state’s failure to support a classification on the touchstone of reasonability, with the existence of intelligible differentia or the rational basis of achieving a stated object, will be ground for it to be held arbitrary and unreasonable. Finally, all state action having the potential to curtail Article 14 must be reasonable, justifiable, undertaken in exercise of constitutional powers and be informed and guided by public interest. The Supreme Court held to this effect in Kasturi Lal Lakshmi Reddy v. State of Jammu and Kashmir[26].

The Intermediary Guidelines contravene Article 14 on the following grounds:

First, intermediaries who are not similarly situated are treated alike. Rule 2 (i) imports the IT Act’s omnibus definition of the term “intermediary”, such that all classes of intermediaries, ranging from intermediaries which control the architecture of the internet and the hardware  which enables it to run (such as ISPs and DNS providers) to intermediaries that enable content creation, sharing and communications online (such as email clients, content aggregators, social networking services and content hosts), are empowered to censor and are required to comply with complaints regarding content. Intermediaries, for the purposes of the IT Act and the Intermediary Guidelines, thus refer to a large and disparate group of providers of services enabling access to as well as use of the Internet. Reasoned state action must recognize that their liabilities must necessarily vary with the specific type of service that each provides. The Intermediary Guidelines fail to do so, and are consequently incompatible with Article 14.

Second, the Intermediary Guidelines treat the same or similar content across media differently, without apparent justification. More specifically, users of the internet are unfairly discriminated against. All of the Rule 3 (2) grounds which are not explicitly mentioned in Article 19 (2) in particular reflect this discriminatory, unreasoned treatment. To illustrate, the prohibition under Rule 3 (2) on the display of any content online when it relates to gambling treats speakers using the internet differently from speakers communicating this content via any other medium of communication. Given that nothing in the nature of the medium itself attaches a new or different character to the content, criminality or liability must attach to such content in a medium-neutral fashion. So, while content qualifying as seditious under law remains so across media, whether it be print, audio or video broadcast or online, the same as not the case for communications on the internet. In other words, while gambling itself may be prohibited under law, speech or expression involving it is nowhere prohibited under law. While such content is legal and protected across print and broadcasting media, the same content is liable to take down online. This would amount to discriminatory treatment of equal content merely because speakers choose the internet, and the speech occurred online.

Third, the Intermediary Guidelines accord unrestrained discretion in the curtailment of fundamental rights to private functionaries, without any guidance whatsoever. This should have been the sole reserve of the state. In addition to the lack of guidance, the breadth of the grounds for censorship in Rule 3 (2), some of which are themselves incapable of precise and non-subjective application, means that private censorship can occur to an arguably unlimited degree. Expecting compliance with such terms, and attaching liability (for intermediaries) or a curtailment of fundamental rights (for generators of content), without the provision of a right to challenge or even, more fundamentally, be informed is both unreasonable and arbitrary.

Similarly, Rules 3 (4) and 3 (5) empower intermediaries to take down content without providing any realistic opportunity of hearing to its author. Intermediaries are accorded an adjudicatory role to the intermediary in deciding questions whether or not authors can access their fundamental right to free speech in the process. This role is ordinarily reserved for competent courts or administrative authorities, which are subject to constitutional checks and balances and a general obligation to preserve and promote fundamental rights. Assigning such functions to a self-interested private entity without any accountability whatsoever is both unreasonable as well as arbitrary.

Finally, the Intermediary Guidelines fail to account for the public interest because they directly restrict the public’s freedom of speech and expression, without any justifiable reason, and privilege the personal and not necessarily constitutional sensitivities of private complainants instead. Rule 3(3) in effect vests an extraordinary power of censorship in intermediaries, entities which operate on the basis of private interest and outside the limits of administrative or even the most basic human rights control. Safeguards must apply to power-bearers to the degree and in the manner required in relation to the nature of the power, rather than its holder, if fundamental rights are to be legislatively preserved. While the Supreme Court in A.K. Kraipak v. Union of India[27] extended the applicability of natural justice principles from judicial bodies alone and quasi-judicial bodies to administrative bodies as well, the applicability of such principles still remains limited to state entities. In other words, there is an acknowledged difficulty in applying public law standards to private, commercial entities.

The Intermediary Guidelines thus vest the right to abridge core fundamental rights (under Articles 14, 19 and 21) in private delegates operating outside public law controls that constrain the scope in which the power can be exercised and ensure that citizen interest can be preserved. In the alternative, they also failed to provide for other safeguards to prevent abuse to the detriment of fundamental rights private delegates of governmental power, even as they granted such powers in unlimited terms. As a result, the Intermediary Guidelines evidence thoughtless, arbitrary, unreasoned and unjust state action.

Vires vis á vis the Parent Act

While it is permissible within the constitutional scheme for legislative functions of the Parliament to be delegated to a degree, they may be struck down on several grounds. In general, per Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India,[28] subordinate legislation can be challenged not only on any of grounds on which the parent legislation is vulnerable to challenge, but also on the grounds that it does not conform to parent statute, that it is contrary to other statutes or that it is unreasonable, in the sense that it is manifestly arbitrary. Notably, the Court also held here that subordinate legislation is liable to being struck down where it fails to conform to constitutional requirements, or, specifically that “it offends Article 14 or Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution”.

It is a well-accepted proposition that delegated legislation which travels outside the scope of its enabling law will not stand as valid. It was held in Agricultural Market Committee v. Shalimar Chemical Works Ltd [29] that a delegate cannot alter the scope of the act under which it has been it has been empowered to make rules, or even of a provision or principle included there under. In State of Karnataka v. Ganesh Kamath[30] the Supreme Court held that “it is a well settled principle of interpretation of statutes that the conferment of rule-making power by an Act does not enable the rule-making authority to make a rule which travels beyond the scope of the enabling Act or which is inconsistent there with or repugnant thereto”. Similarly, in KSEB v. Indian Aluminium Company[31], it held that“subordinate legislation cannot be said to be valid unless it is within the scope of the rule making power provided in the statute”.

The Intermediary Guidelines were enacted under Sections 79(2) and 87(2)(zg) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (as amended). While the latter provision explicitly grants the Central Government rule-making powers by which it can lay out guidelines to be followed by intermediaries in order to comply with Section 79(2), it appears that the rules in their current form appear to have been drafted based on a misunderstanding of Section 79.

Section 79(2) itself merely clarifies the circumstances in which intermediaries can claim that intermediaries are not liable for content where they do not initiate the transmission of potentially actionable content or select its recipient, modify its contents and observe all necessary “due diligence” requirements under the IT Act and rules.

The extent to which the Intermediary Guidelines alter the intent and scope of section 79 (or other provisions of the IT Act, in some cases) clearly leaves them ultra vires the parent statute. The specific instances of deviation by the Intermediary Guidelines from the IT Act are listed below:

First, Rule 3 (3) is ultra vires section 79 of the IT Act. Where this rule expressly prohibits the hosting, publication or initiation of transmission of content described in Rule 3 (2), section 79 does not intend any prohibition. All that it does is to waive the immunity otherwise accorded to intermediaries where the conditions specified are not satisfied. In other words, the section is optional, rather than mandatory and punitive: whether or not an intermediary can claim immunity will depend on whether it chooses to comply with section 79 (2).

Second, Rule 3 (4) requires intermediaries to take steps to disable access to within 36 hours of receiving a complaint in relation thereto. This is inconsistent with section 69B of the IT Act, which lays down in detail, the procedure to be followed to disable access to information. Since section 69B is statutory law, Rule 3 (4), being mere delegated legislation, will have to yield in its favour.

Third, Rule 3 (7) is ultra vires sections 69 and 69B, and falls outside the scope of section 79 (2). Rule 3 (7) provides that intermediaries must comply with requests for information or assistance when required to do so by appropriate authorities. This provision has no relation to the contents of section 79, which regulates intermediaries’ liability for content, and under which these rules were notified. In addition, rules have already been issued under the properly relevant sections, namely sections 69 and 69B, to provide a procedure to be followed by the government for the interception, monitoring, and decryption of information held by intermediaries. Rule 3 (7) is not consistent with the rules under sections 69 and 69B, as it removes all safeguards that those rules included. Under the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring, and Decryption) Rules 2009, for instance, permission must be obtained from the competent authority before an intermediary can be directed to provide access to its records and facilities while Rule 3 (7) makes intermediaries answerable to virtually any request from any government agency.

[1]. Rule 3 (2) (a).

[2]. Rule 3 (2) (d).

[3]. Rule 3 (2) (b)

[4]. Section 499, Indian Penal Code, 1860 (“Defamation” is defined to include both written and spoken words).

[5]. AIR 1950 SC 124.

[6]. AIR 1958 SC 578.

[7]. AIR 1995 SC 1236.

[8].(2007) 1 SCC 170.

[9]. AIR 1973 SC 106.

[10]. (2011) 8 SCC 372.

[11]. AIR 1962 SC 305, ¶31.

[12]. Supra, n.5.

[13]. Centre for Internet & Society, Intermediary Liability in India: Chilling Effects on Free Expression on the Internet 2011 available at cis-india.org/internet-governance/chilling-effects-on-free-expression-on-internet/intermediary-liability-in-india.pdf.

[14]. UN Document no. A/HRC/17/27.

[15]. UN Document no. A/HRC/20/.13.

[16]. AIR 1997 SC 3011.

[17]. AIR 1997 SC 568.

[18]. (2005) 1 SCC 496.

[19]. 1978 SCR (2) 621.

[20]. AIR 1985 SC 1416.

[21]. AIR 1999 SC 2583.

[22]. AIR 1974 SC 555.

[23]. AIR 2002 SC 322.

[24]. AIR 1993 SC 935.

[25]. (2001) 7 SCC 545, 548, ¶10.

[26].1980 AIR 1992.

[27]. AIR 1970 SC 150.

[28]. AIR 1986 SC 515.

[29]. AIR 1997 SC 2502.

[30]. (1983) 2 SCC 40.

[31]. AIR 1976 SC 1031.

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