By Arpita Biswas
With regard to the pending matter of linking Aadhaar with certain services, the Bench stated that the hearing for interim relief would take place tomorrow (14/12). In addition, the Centre issued a notification on the 12th of December, stating that the deadline for linking Aadhaar with bank accounts, which was the 31st of December, was extended indefinitely. On the 13th of December however, this deadline was fixed as the 31st of March. Our coverage of the Aadhaar linking matter can be found here and here.
Sabu Mathew George vs. Union of India
Today, the Supreme Court heard the ongoing matter of Sabu Mathew George vs. Union of India. In 2008, a petition was filed to ban advertisements endorsing sex-selective abortions from search engine results. Advertisements endorsing sex selective abortions are illegal under Section 22 of the PNDT Act (The Pre-conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act), 1994 Act. Several orders have been passed over the last few years, the last of which was passed on April 13th, 2017. Following from these orders, the Court had directed the Centre to set up a nodal agency where complaints against sex selective ads could be lodged. The Court had also ordered the search engines involved to set up an in-house expert committee in this regard. The order dated April 13th stated that compliance with the mechanism in place would be checked hereinafter. Our blog posts covering these arguments and other issues relevant to search neutrality can be found on the following links (1, 2 and 3).
In today’s proceedings, the matter was disposed off.
Senior counsel Sanjay Parikh appearing for the petitioners started off by commenting on the working of the nodal agencies and the limits within which they function. He stated that search engines were ‘washing their hands off’ and trying to pawn off their responsibilities to the government.
Counsel for the respondents argued that the petitioners displayed a fundamentally incorrect understanding of how the internet functioned. They stated that a blanket ban on content, as desired by the petitioners, would not be possible.
The respondents then stated that problematic content was taken down in the time period stipulated in the earlier orders. The petitioners refuted this statement.
The respondents once again stated that the petitioners ‘betrayed a lack of understanding’ of how search engines functioned.
The petitioners stated that search engines have been much more proactive and have had more success in taking down content related to child sexual abuse material and terrorism. As per the petitioners, this implies that search engines are capable of removing content in an efficient manner.
The respondents stated that material relating to sexual abuse usually relates to images and other visuals, as opposed to search terms or words. They stated that this was an important distinction, and would determine the extent to which search engines could efficiently take down content.
Referring to the affidavit filed, the petitioners reiterated that the government and the nodal agency were ‘helpless’ and would need further cooperation to prevent content from disseminating.
To this, the respondents stated that the government of India should block problematic URLs.
The petitioners then drew attention to the magnitude of illegitimate content on the internet, by discussing statistics from a YouTube search.
At this point, Chief Justice Dipak Misra interjected by stating that nodal agencies had to function in a competent manner and ensure that complaints were addressed in the requisite time period.
The petitioners responded stating that nodal agencies were finding it difficult to efficiently regulate content, since the takedown of URLs did not affect the availability of related illegitimate content on the internet.
The respondents then outlined the constraints within which search engines functioned. They stated that a search engine could only de-index illegitimate content on the internet, and that the content would continue to exist on the internet otherwise. They remarked on safe-harbour exceptions and also stated that filtering and indexing is an algorithmic process, which could only be regulated to a certain extent. Reiterating on the algorithmic nature of the process, they stated that ‘one step could not be removed from the process’.
They also reassured the petitioners that any problematic URLs, that they were intimated of, would be removed. However, proxy websites with similar content could still crop up. They stated that the possible permutations and combinations were endless, and eliminating search results was not possible. However, sponsored ads could be dealt with effectively. They also stated that dealing with every instance of infringement on an individual level would be impossible.
At this point, the Chief Justice asked the respondents to elaborate on what could be done.
The respondents stated that there was a need to understand the technology better.
The Bench then asked the petitioners if they could interact with the committee to better understand technical solutions.
Mr. Parikh, referring to an affidavit filed, stated that Google, in 2014, had displayed the ability to ‘proactively’ takedown content, without being informed by external bodies.
The respondents stated that they would look into this.
The Bench concluded by stating that the nodal agency should hold a meeting with the respondents and the petitioners within 6 weeks.
Chief Justice Dipak Misra read out the order.
Mr. Sanjay Parikh appearing for the petitioners stated that the nodal agency, despite the orders passed, had not been able to stop the offending material from being used. According to Mr. Parikh, search engines alone have the potentiality to deliberately remove offending material. Mr. Parikh has also stated that there are other ways in which offending content can be removed by the search engines.
The counsel for the respondents have stated that content can only be removed once it is pointed out, and once a specific URL is specified. There are other permutations and combinations to consider while regulating search results.
Senior Counsel Pinky Anand has stated that the nodal agency is hard at work and addresses complaints efficiently whenever it receives them.
The matter was disposed off.
Arpita Biswas is a Programme Officer at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi