Nearly a week after the social media companies submitted voluntary code of ethics ahead of general elections in April-May 2019, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has faced the wrath of the Bombay High Court for failing to come up with any orders regulating political advertisements on social media 48 hours before polling day.
The apprehension comes in the light of a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by lawyer Sagar Suryavanshi seeking directions to the ECI to regulate fake news in the form of paid political ads on social media.
The court bench of Chief Justice Naresh Patil and Justice N M Jamdar asked the ECI why it was hesitant to pass regulatory or prohibitory orders on such ads.
Even though, ECI counsel Pradeep Rajagopal denied there was any apprehension on its part, the court said the ECI’s conduct through the hearings made it apparent that it was “hesitant” to bring about such regulation. The court has reserved its order and said it will pass appropriate orders.
Suryavanshi through the PIL has also sought that just as campaigning and political ads, hoardings etc are prohibited on the ground 48 hours before polling day, a similar “black out” be enforced for social media platforms.
For the uninitiated, Section 126 of Representation of Peoples Act 1951 prohibits displaying any election matter by means, inter alia, of television or similar apparatus, during the period of 48 hours before the hour fixed for conclusion of poll in a constituency.
The EC had convened a meeting with social media representatives on a six-point agenda for the meeting that included “evolving mechanism by the social media platforms to prevent abuse on their platforms”. At the time, the players reportedly made presentations on steps taken to control misuse of the platform for the upcoming national elections
Along the lines, on March 20, the social media platforms and Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) submitted the “Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Election 2019”. The companies agreed to provide a mechanism for political advertisers to submit pre-certified advertisements issued by Media Certification and Monitoring Committee. The Code of Ethics also promises to facilitate transparency in paid political advertisements.
However, the court noted that the issue of the 48-hour blackout was not discussed in the meeting. It said the ECI could not pass off its responsibility to social media intermediaries and expect them to impose voluntary regulations for the elections.
Menlo Park-headquartered social networking company Facebook had told the court earlier that it had introduced a strict “verification processes” for all political ads and paid content of “national interest” on its website in India ahead of the 2019 general elections.
The new system ensures that only bona fide individuals, who are citizens of India, and political organisations based in the country can place political ads, Facebook had said.
Twitter and YouTube had told the bench that they already permit only such political ads that had been verified by the Election Commission. They had, however, submitted that they could not impose a 48-hour blackout unless the ECI or any other central government authority issued specific directions to the effect.
However, as the Bombay High Court questions an order by EC on the issue, the action taken by EC remains questionable.
[The development was reported by PTI.]