Centre for Internet & Society

Rather than critically examining the infringement of liberties by the political executive, the Indian courts are becoming an additional threat to the right to freedom of expression, which we must be increasingly wary of.

The article by Gurshabad Grover was published in Hindustan Times on May 2, 2019.

In a span of less than two weeks, the Madras High Court has imposed and lifted a ban on the TikTok mobile application, an increasingly popular video and social platform. While rescinding the ban is welcome, the events tell a worrying tale of how the courts can arbitrarily censor online expression with little accountability.

On April 3, the Madras High Court heard a public interest litigation petitioning for the TikTok mobile app to be banned in India because it was “encouraging pornography”, “degrading culture”, “causing paedophiles”, spreading “explicit disturbing content” and causing health problems for teenagers. It is difficult to establish the truth of these extreme claims about content on the platform that has user generated content, but the court was confident enough to pass wide ranging interim orders on the same day without hearing ByteDance, the company that operates the Tik Tok app.

The interim order had three directives. First, the Madras High Court ordered the government to prohibit the downloading of the app. Second, it restricted the media from broadcasting videos made using the app. Third, it asked the government to respond about whether it plans to enact legislation that would protect children’s online privacy. While the third directive poses an important question to the government that merits a larger discussion, the first two completely lacked a legal rationale. The court order also implied that the availability of pornography on the platform was problematic, even though it is not illegal to access pornography in India.

Appallingly, the order makes no mention at all of the most pertinent legal provision: Section 79 of the Information Technology (IT) Act and the rules issued under it, which form the liability regime applicable to intermediaries (online services). The intermediary liability rules in India generally shield online platforms from liability for the content uploaded to their platform as long as the company operating is primarily involved in transmitting the content, complies with government and court orders, and is not abetting illegal activity. It is this regime that has ensured that online platforms are not hyperactively censoring expression to avoid liability, and has directly supported the proliferation of speech online.

The courts do have some powers of online censorship under the provision, which they have used many times in the past. They have the authority to decide on questions of whether certain content violates law and then direct intermediaries to disable access to that specific content. Such a legal scenario was certainly not the case before the Madras High Court. We can also be sure that the app stores run by Apple and Google, on which TikTok is available, were not the intermediaries under consideration here (which would also be problematic in its own ways) since the interim order makes no mention of them. So, despite the fact that the court’s order had no clear jurisdiction and legal basis, Apple and Google were ordered by the government to remove TikTok from their respective mobile app stores for India.

ByteDance Technology appealed to the Supreme Court of India to rescind the ban, arguing that they qualify as intermediaries under the IT Act and should not face a blanket ban as a repercussion of allegedly problematic content on their platform. The Supreme Court refrained from staying the problematic Madras High Court interim order, but decided that the ban on the app will be lifted by April 24 if the case wasn’t decided by then. On April 24, sense finally prevailed when the High Court decided to take the interim directive back.

Admittedly, popular online platforms can create certain social problems. TikTok has faced bans elsewhere and was fined by the Federal Trade Commission in the United Sates for collecting information on its users who were below the age of 13. There is no debate that the company is legally bound to follow the rules issued under the IT Act, be responsive to legally valid government and court orders, and should strictly enforce their community guidelines that aim to create a safe environment for the young demographic that forms a part of its user base. However, a ban is a disproportionate move that sends signals of regulatory uncertainty, especially for technology companies trying to break into an increasingly consolidated market. The failure of the government to enact a law that protects children’s privacy also cannot be considered a legitimate ground for a ban on a mobile app.

Perhaps most importantly, the interim court order adds yet another example to the increasing number of times the judiciary has responded to petitions by passing censorship orders that have no basis in law. As constitutional scholar Gautam Bhatia has pointed out, we are faced with the trend of “judicial censorship” wherein the judiciary is exercising power without accountability in ways not envisioned by the Constitution. Rather than critically examining the infringement of liberties by the political executive, the Indian courts are becoming an additional threat to the right to freedom of expression, which we must be increasingly wary of.

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