Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Shreya Singhal Judgement and Intermediary Liability: What is the Legacy?

About a week ago, on March 24, 2017, I was part of a panel discussion organised in New Delhi by the Centre for Communication Governance of NLU Delhi to commemorate the Shreya Singhal judgement. Since I led the team which challenged the intermediary liability regime on behalf of the Internet and Mobile Association of India as part of the batch of Shreya Singhal petitions, my views were sought on the actual impact of the judgement on intermediary liability regime in the two years that have passed since the verdict. In this series of posts, I will expand on the views I expressed in the panel discussion on the legacy of Shreya SinghalOn a different note, those interested may read here the storified version of my live updates on Twitter on the arguments in Shreya Singhal.

In April 2015, I had written that while the judgement was certainly a welcome and necessary step forward in preserving the democratic nature of the internet and to ensure that unconstitutional limitations were not imposed on exercise of free speech and expression citing the nature of the medium, the Supreme Court did miss a historic  opportunity to strike a more comprehensive and nuanced position in so far as intermediary liability was concerned. This is evident from the cursory manner in which the Supreme Court dealt with the challenge to Section 79(3)(b) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and Rule 3 of the Intermediary Guidelines, 2011. The entire discussion relating to these provisions is limited to the last six paragraphs of the decision i.e. Paras 112-118, apart from the holding in Para 119(c). The analysis of the parent provision i.e. Section 79(3)(b) itself is to be found only in Paras 116 and 117.

In Para 116, the Court observed that in contrast to the take-down mechanism under Section 79(3)(b), blocking of content on websites under Section 69A of the Act was possible (a) through issuance of a reasoned order by a Designated Officer applying the procedural safeguards provided under the Act and the 2009 Rules or (b) under the order of a competent court directing the Designated Officer to block a website or content on a website. Importantly, the Court noted that under Section 69A, unlike under Section 79(3)(b), an intermediary was not expected to adjudicate on blocking of content under the provision. This led the Court, in Para 117, to read down “actual knowledge” under Section 79(3)(b) to mean receipt of a Court order directing the intermediary to expeditiously remove or disable access to content. To this extent, the judgement provided some much-needed respite to intermediaries who were caught in the crossfire between the issuer of the notice and their users to whom they were bound by the terms of use of their portals.

However, what is pertinent is that in reading down what constitutes ‘actual knowledge’, the Court did not expressly state in its analysis that receipt of or constructive notice of a notification of an appropriate government or its agency too would amount to actual knowledge. The reference to government notification is to be found at the end of Para 117 and that too in the context of Article 19(2). Extracted below is the relevant excerpt:

Also, the Court order and/or the notification by the appropriate Government or its agency must strictly conform to the subject matters laid down in Article 19(2). Unlawful acts beyond what is laid down in Article 19(2) obviously cannot form any part of Section 79. With these two caveats, we refrain from striking down Section 79(3) (b).”

Extracted below is the conclusion of the Court in Para 119(c):

“(c) Section 79 is valid subject to Section 79(3)(b) being read down to mean that an intermediary upon receiving actual knowledge from a court order or on being notified by the appropriate government or its agency that unlawful acts relatable to Article 19(2) are going to be committed then fails to expeditiously remove or disable access to such material. Similarly, the Information Technology “Intermediary Guidelines” Rules, 2011 are valid subject to Rule 3 sub-rule (4) being read down in the same manner as indicated in the judgment.”

It could be inferred, based on the language of both excerpts, that receipt of or constructive notice of a notification of an appropriate government or its agency too would amount to actual knowledge. That being said, the further observation that Orders of the Court and Government Notifications must strictly conform to subject-matters laid down in Article 19(2) and that unlawful acts beyond what is laid down in Article 19(2) obviously cannot form any part of Section 79, has given rise to three different interpretations:

1.       Interpretation 1: Since Court Orders and government notifications must conform to Article 19(2), it must obviously only relate to content that attracts Article 19(1)(a). Therefore, receipt of court order or government notification as actual knowledge is a safeguard that applies only to content which falls under Article 19(1)(a). The consequence of this is that mere cease and desist notices would continue to constitute actual knowledge in relation to content which falls outside the ambit of Article 19(1)(a). This defeats the very ratio of the Supreme Court which was to not put the intermediary in the position of an adjudicator of the lawfulness of any content.

2.       Interpretation 2: Since, according to the Supreme Court, unlawful acts beyond what is laid down in Article 19(2) obviously cannot form any part of Section 79, the very applicability of Section 79 and the immunity granted thereunder to intermediaries does not extend to any unlawful act which falls outside Article 19(2). This obviously exposes intermediaries to legal action to unlawful acts which fall outside the ambit of Article 19(2) despite them playing the limited role of intermediaries.

3.       Interpretation 3: Court orders or government notifications constitute actual knowledge in all cases and in relation to all kinds of content. Where the content is relatable to Article 19(1)(a), the limitations and safeguards of Article 19(2) kick in and apply to Court orders as well as Government notifications.

It could be argued that the third interpretation perhaps is the most faithful to the language and intent of Section 79, as well as to the Supreme Court’s ratio behind reading down the meaning of actual knowledge and introducing Article 19(2) in the context of free speech. However, not everyone seems to subscribe to this interpretation.

In the next post, I will review decisions of the Delhi High Court which were delivered post Shreya Singhal to understand the High Court’s interpretation(s) of the judgement.  

Comments and queries are welcome!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

It’s been almost a year…

It’s been almost a year since I last wrote here, and to say that this period has been “eventful” would be an understatement. After spending seven years in the profession as a litigator in a law firm (which was my first ever job), and dare I say having earned my stripes, I finally went independent as an arguing counsel late last June. These eight months of “independence” have been hectic in a good way and they have taught me quite a few things about myself and the profession.

For instance, despite having been part of a law firm setup for well over half a decade, I have come to realize that my conscious decision to not start a firm of my own and instead opt for a Chamber practice as an arguing counsel appears to have been a prudent one given that running a firm is perhaps more akin to running a business, in that it demands your attention 24*7*365. The significant managerial and administrative responsibilities that come with running a firm would have left me with little or no time to read widely and deeply on the law and outside of it on areas which interest me such as history, politics and economics, all of which I believe add to the practise of an arguing counsel. 

Importantly, the skill set needed to successfully run a law firm, I think, is very different from the one needed to be a good litigator or counsel. One perhaps needs to be a “systems” guy to manage a firm, whereas the practice of an arguing counsel is relatively more of a solo act. That’s not to say that you don’t need the support of a committed team to succeed as an arguing counsel. All I am trying to say is that there may be several gifted individuals who are capable of running a firm as well as appearing in Court day in and day out without there being a dip in their performance, but I don’t consider myself one of them. Therefore, given my love of the law and the Courtroom and my commitment to give them my all, I chose not to experiment with running a firm, and instead decided to focus on honing my craft as an arguing counsel.

The other thing I learnt was that, as an arguing counsel while you can have your areas of core competence, in India you are expected to go beyond your comfort zone(s) because after a point of time, what matters and is valued is your ability to quickly understand the broad framework of a new area of practice and the nature of the forum, assimilate the facts of a case and the issues at play, apply the legal framework to the case and articulate it in a lucid and convincing manner to the forum. In a nutshell, you can or are perhaps expected to be a jack of some and master of a few without being perceived as spreading yourself too thin. Therefore, adaptability at short notice (sometimes barely an hour’s notice) is something you pick up as an arguing counsel.

While one could go on and on, to cut a long story short, each day as an arguing counsel brings with it a unique experience and the opportunity to learn from tremendously gifted peers, regardless of which side they are on. Hopefully, I have a long way to go and don’t stop learning. I certainly hope to frequently share with the readers whatever I learn.