Indian court halts operations of government-run social media fact checker

Rights groups protested potential for sneaky censorship of political rivals

India's supreme court on Thursday halted a plan to activate a government-run fact-checking unit that would assess info posted about the nation's government posted to social media platforms – the day after it was told to commence operations.

The unit, which lies within India's Press Information Bureau, was told to start operations [PDF] the day prior by India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, just as the country moves towards its elections.

The unit was established in April 2023 under the country's IT rules and given powers to flag posts it found to be false or misleading. Social networks would then be compelled to take down the content or issue a disclaimer. Takedowns are the safest action, as issuing a disclaimer meant forfeiture of legal immunity and possible prosecution of the offending platform.

The rules governing the fact-checking unit (FCU) attracted criticism on grounds that governments have clear conflict of interest – they could order takedowns of content they find disagreeable, even if it's true.

The government argued that its intention was to remove misinformation.

But the FCU was told to start work just days after India set the date for national elections.

India's non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) warned the outfit "could vastly affect the nature of free speech on the internet as it holds the potential to be (mis)used for proactive censorship, most importantly in the context of dissent."

The IFF called the rules enabling the unit "unconstitutional, illegal," and "undemocratic."

Petitioners against the rule included stand-up comic Kunal Karma and the Editors Guild of India, who have asserted that the use of the FCU would hinder freedom of expression.

Kamra's advocate, Darius Khambata, argued in court on Thursday that social media platforms would err on the side of safety and remove posts flagged by the FCU materials to protect their own interests.

"The judges (of High Court) have proceeded on the assumption that the govt is a good boy," reportedly claimed advocate for the Editor's Guild of India, Shadan Farasat.

"How will investigative journalists work at all? It is through several sources in the government. Now a central authority will stamp out all other voices," he added.

The Bombay High Court denied a previous bid to halt the Fact Checking Unit in mid-March, before the Supreme Court acquiesced on Thursday.

When the Bombay High Court decision was announced, Kamra declared that "actions have to be taken without any expectation of outcome."

He called the stay "welcome."

The IFF has celebrated the move as a win, naming it a "big relief."

"Though the Bench led by chief justice DY Chandrachud, along with justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, desisted from delivering an order on merits, they took the view that the constitutional challenge requires analysis of serious legal questions," stated the org.

IFF warned that there is more litigation as the third judge of the Bombay High Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of the FCU sometime after mid-April. ®

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