Guest Post: Evaluating MIB’s emergency blocking power under Rule 16 of the 2021 IT Rules (Part II)

This post is authored by Dhruv Bhatnagar

Part I of this two part-series examined the contours of Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“2021 IT Rules”), and the  Bombay High Court’s rationale for refusing to stay the rule in the Leaflet case. This second part examines the legality and constitutionality of Rule 16. It argues that the rule’s constitutionality may be contested because it deprives impacted content publishers of a hearing when their content is restricted. It also argues that the MIB should provide information on blocking orders under Rule 16 to allow them to be challenged, both by users whose access to information is curtailed, and by publishers whose right to free expression is restricted.

Rule 16’s legality

At its core, Rule 16 is a legal provision granting discretionary authority to the government to take down content. Consistently, the Supreme Court (“SC”) has maintained that to be compliant with Article 14, discretionary authority must be backed by adequate safeguards.[1] Admittedly, Rule 16 is not entirely devoid of safeguards since it envisages an assessment of the credibility of content blocking recommendations at multiple levels (refer Part I for context). But this framework overlooks a core principle of natural justice – audi alteram partem (hear the other side) – by depriving the impacted publishers of a hearing.

In Tulsiram Patel, the SC recognised principles of natural justice as part of the guarantee under Article 14 and ruled that any law or state action abrogating these principles is susceptible to a constitutionality challenge. But the SC also found that natural justice principles are not absolute and can be curtailed under exceptional circumstances. Particularly, audi alteram partem, can be excluded in situations where the “promptitude or the urgency of taking action so demands”.

Arguably, the suspension of pre-decisional hearings under Rule 16 is justifiable considering the rule’s very purpose is to empower the Government to act with alacrity against content capable of causing immediate real-world harm. However, this rationale does not preclude the provision of a post-decisional hearing under the framework of the 2021 IT Rules. This is because, as posited by the SC in Maneka Gandhi (analysed here and here), the “audi alteram partem rule is sufficiently flexible” to address“the exigencies of myriad kinds of situations…”. Thus, a post-decisional hearing to impacted stakeholders, after the immediacy necessitating the issuance of interim blocking directions had subsided, could have been reasonably accommodated within Rule 16. Crucially, this would create a forum for the State to justify the necessity and proportionality of its speech restriction to the individuals’ impacted (strengthening legitimacy) and the public at large (strengthening the rule of law and public reasoning). Finally, in the case of ex-facie illegal content, originators are unlikely to avail of post-facto hearings, mitigating concerns of a burdensome procedure.       

Rule 16’s exercise by MIB


MIB has exercised its power under Rule 16 of the 2021 IT Rules on five occasions. Collectively, it has ordered the blocking of approximately 93 YouTube channels, 6 websites, 4 Twitter accounts, and 2 Facebook accounts. Each time, MIB has announced content blocking only through press releases after theorders were passed but has not disclosed the actual blocking orders.

MIB’s reluctance to publish its blocking orders renders the manner it is exercising power under Rule 16 opaque. Although press statements inform the public that content has been blocked, blocking orders are required (under Rule 16(2) and Rule 16(4)) to record the reasons for which the content has been blocked. As discussed above, this limits the right to free expression of the originators of the content and denies them the ability to be heard.

Additionally, content recipients, whose right to view content and access information is curtailed through such orders, are not being made aware of the existence of these orders by the Ministry directly. Pertinently, the 2021 IT Rules appear to recognise the importance of informing users about the reasons for blocking digital content. This is evidenced by Rule 4(4), which requires ‘significant social media intermediaries’ to display a notice to users attempting to access proactively disabled content. However, in the absence of similar transparency obligations upon MIB under the 2021 IT Rules, content recipients aggrieved by the Ministry’s blocking orders may be compelled to rely on the cumbersome mechanism under the Right to Information Act, 2005 to seek the disclosure of these orders to challenge them.   

Although the 2021 IT Rules do not specifically mandate the publication of blocking orders by MIB, this obligation can be derived from the Anuradha Bhasin verdict. Here, in the context of the Telecom Suspension Rules, the SC held that any order affecting the “lives, liberty and property of people” must be published by the government, “regardless of whether the parent statute or rule prescribes the same”. The SC also held that the State should ensure the availability of governmental orders curtailing fundamental rights unless it claims specific privilege or public interest for refusing disclosure. Even then, courts will finally decide whether the State’s claims override the aggrieved litigants’ interests.

Considering the SC’s clear reasoning, MIB ought to make its blocking orders readily available in the interest of transparency, especially since a confidentiality provision restricting disclosure, akin to Rule 16 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (“2009 Blocking Rules”), is absent in the 2021 IT Rules.   


Another concerning trend is MIB’s invocation of its emergency content-blocking power as the norm rather than the exception it was meant to be. For context, the 2021 IT Rules provide a non-emergency blocking process under Rules 14 and 15, whereunder impacted publishers are provided a pre-decisional hearing before an Inter-Departmental Committee required to be constituted under Rule 13(1)(b). However, thus far, MIB has exclusively relied on its emergency power to block ostensibly problematic digital content, including fake news.

While the Bombay High Court in the Leaflet case declined to expressly stay Rule 14 (noting that the Inter-Departmental Committee was yet to be set up) (¶19), the High Court’s stay on Rule 9(3) creates a measure of ambiguity as to whether Rules 14 and 15 are currently in effect. This is because Rule 9(3) states that there shall be a government oversight mechanism to “ensure adherence to the Code of Ethics”. A key part of this mechanism is the Inter-Departmental Committee whose role is to decide “violation[s] or contravention[s] of the Code of Ethics” (Rule 14(2)). The High Court even notes that it is “incomprehensible” how content may be taken down under Rule 14(5) for violating the Code of Ethics (¶27). Thus, despite the Bombay High Court’s refusal to stay Rule 14, it is arguable that the High Court’s stay on the operation of Rule 9(3) to prevent the ‘Code of Ethics’ from being applied against online news and curated content publishers, may logically extend to Rule 14(2) and 15. However, even if the Union were to proceed on a plain reading of the Leaflet order and infer that the Bombay High Court did not stay Rules 14 and 15, it is unclear if the MIB has constituted the Inter-Departmental Committee to facilitate non-emergency blocking.     

MeitY has also liberally invoked its emergency blocking power under Rule 9 of the 2009 Blocking Rules to disable access to content. Illustratively, in early 2021 Twitter received multiple blocking orders from MeitY, at least two of which were emergency orders, directing it to disable over 250 URLs and a thousand accounts for circulating content relating to farmers’ agitation against contentious farm laws. Commentators have also pointed out that there are almost no recorded instances of MeitY providing pre-decisional hearings to publishers under the 2009 Blocking Rules, indicating that in practice this crucial safeguard has been rendered illusory.  


Evidently, there is a need for the MIB to be more transparent when invoking its emergency content-blocking powers. A significant step forward in this direction would be ensuring that at least final blocking orders, which ratify emergency blocking directions, are made readily available, or at least provided to publishers/originators. Similarly, notices to any users trying to access blocked content would also enhance transparency. Crucially, these measures would reduce information asymmetry regarding the existence of blocking orders and allow a larger section of stakeholders, including the oft-neglected content recipients, the opportunity to challenge such orders before constitutional courts.

Additionally, the absence of hearings to impacted stakeholders, at any stage of the emergency blocking process under Rule 16 of the 2021 IT Rules limits their right to be heard and defend the legality of ‘at-issue’ content. Whilst the justification of urgency may be sufficient to deny a pre-decisional hearing, the procedural safeguard of a post-decisional hearing should be incorporated by MIB.

The aforesaid legal infirmities plague Rule 9 of the 2009 Blocking Rules as well, given its similarity with Rule 16 of the 2021 IT Rules. The Tanul Thakur case presents an ideal opportunity for the Delhi High Court to examine and address the limitations of these rules. Civil society organisations have for years advocated (here and here) for incorporation of a post-decisional hearing within the emergency blocking framework under the 2009 Blocking Rules too. Its adoption and diligent implementation could go a long way in upholding natural justice and mitigating the risk of arbitrary content blocking.

[1] State of Punjab v. Khan Chand, (1974) 1 SCC 549; Virendra v. The State of Punjab & Ors., AIR 1957 SC 896; State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali, AIR 1952 SC 75.

Guest Post: Evaluating the legality of MIB’s emergency blocking power under the 2021 IT Rules (Part I)

This post is authored by Dhruv Bhatnagar

The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“2021 IT Rules”) were challenged before several High Courts (refer here and here) almost immediately after their promulgation. In one such challenge, initiated by the publishers of the online news portal ‘The Leaflet’, the Bombay High Court, by an order dated August 14, 2021,  imposed an interim stay on the operation of Rules 9(1) and (3) of the 2021 IT Rules. Chiefly, this was done because these provisions subject online news and curated content publishers to a vaguely worded ‘code of ethics’, adherence to which would have had a ‘chilling effect’ on their freedom of speech. However, the Bombay High Court refused to stay Rule 16 of these rules, which empowers the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (“MIB”) to direct blocking of digital content during an “emergency” where “no delay is acceptable”.

Part I of this two-part series, examines the contours of Rule 16 and argues that the Bombay High Court overlooked the procedural inadequacy of this rule when refusing to stay the provision in the Leaflet case. Part II assesses the legality and constitutionality of the rule.

Overview of Rule 16

Part III of the 2021 IT Rules authorises the MIB to direct blocking of digital content in case of an ‘emergency’ in the following manner:

The MIB has correctly noted that Rule 16 is modelled after Rule 9 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009 (“2009 Blocking Rules”) (analysed here), and confers upon the MIB similar emergency blocking powers which the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY”) has possessed since 2009. Both provisions confer discretion upon authorised officers to determine what constitutes an emergency but fail to provide a hearing to impacted publishers or intermediaries at any stage.

Judicial findings on Rule 16

The Bombay High Court’s order in the Leaflet case is significant since it is the first time a constitutional court has recorded its preliminary findings on the rule’s legitimacy. Here, the Bombay High Court refused to stay Rule 16 primarily for two reasons. First, the High Court held that Rule 16 of the 2021 IT Rules is substantially similar to Rule 9 of the 2009 Blocking Rules, which is still in force. Second, the grounds upon which Rule 16 permits content blocking are coextensive with the grounds on which speech may be ‘reasonably restricted’ under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution. Respectfully, the plausibility of this reasoning is contestable:

Equivalence with the 2009 Blocking Rules: Section 69A of the IT Act and the 2009 Blocking Rules were previously challenged in Shreya Singhal, where both were upheld by the Supreme Court (“SC”). However, establishing an equivalence between Rule 16 of the 2021 IT Rules and Rule 9 of the 2009 Blocking Rules to understand the constitutionality of the former would have been useful only if Shreya Singhal contained a meaningful analysis of Rule 9. However, the SC did not examine this rule but rather broadly upheld the constitutionality of the 2009 Blocking Rules as a whole due to the presence of certain safeguards including: (a) the non-emergency process for content blocking under the 2009 Blocking Rules includes a pre-decisional hearing to identified intermediaries/originators before content was blocked; and (b) the 2009 Blocking Rules mandate the recording of reasons in blocking orders so that they may be challenged under Article 226 of the Constitution

However, the SC did not consider that the emergency blocking framework under Rule 9 of the 2009 Blocking Rules not only allows MeitY to bypass the essential safeguard of a pre-decisional hearing to impacted stakeholders but also fails to provide them with either a written order or a post-decisional hearing. It also did not address that Rule 16 of the 2009 Blocking Rules, which mandates confidentiality of blocking requests and subsequent actions, empowers MeitY to refuse disclosure of blocking orders to impacted stakeholders thus depriving them of the opportunity to challenge such orders.

In fact, Rule 16 was cited by MeitY as a basis for denying film critic Mr. Tanul Thakur access to the blocking order by which his satirical website ‘Dowry Calculator’ was banned. Mr. Thakur challenged Rule 16 of the 2009 Blocking Rules and highlighted the secrecy with which MeitY exercises its blocking powers in a writ petition which is being heard by the Delhi High Court. Recently, through an interim order dated 11 May 2022, the Delhi High Court directed MeitY to provide Mr. Thakur with a copy of the blocking order blocking his website, and offer him a post-decisional hearing. This is a significant development since it is the first recorded instances of such a hearing being provided to an originator under the 2009 Blocking Rules.

Thus, the Bombay High Court’s attempt in the Leaflet case to claim equivalence with Rule 9 of the 2009 Blocking Rules as a basis to defend the constitutionality of Rule 16 of the 2021 IT Rules was inapposite since Rule 9 itself was not substantively reviewed in Shreya Singhal, and its operation has since been challenged on constitutional grounds.

Procedural safeguards: Merely because Rule 16 of the 2021 IT Rules permits content blocking only under the circumstances enumerated under Article 19(2), does not automatically render it procedurally reasonable. In People’s Union of Civil Liberties (“PUCL”) the SC examined the procedural propriety of Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act, 1885, which permits phone-tapping. Even though this provision restricts fundamental rights only on constitutionally permissible grounds, the SC found that substantive law had to be backed by adequate procedural safeguards to rule out arbitrariness. Although the SC declined to strike down Section 5(2) in PUCL, it framed interim guidelines to govern the provision’s exercise to compensate for the lack of adequate safeguards.

Since Rule 16 restricts the freedom of speech, its proportionality should be tested as part of any meaningful constitutionality analysis. To be proportionate, restrictions on fundamental rights must satisfy four prongs[1]: (a) legality – the requirement of a law having a legitimate aim; (b) suitability – a rational nexus between the means adopted to restrict rights and the end of achieving this aim, (c) necessity – proposed restrictions must be the ‘least restrictive measures’ for achieving the aim; and (d) balancing – balance between the extent to which rights are restricted and the need to achieve the aim. Justice Kaul’s opinion in Puttaswamy (9JB) also highlights the need for procedural safeguards against the abuse of measures interfering with fundamental rights (para 70 Kaul J).  

Arguably, by demonstrating the connection between Rule 16 and Article 19(2), the Bombay High Court has proven that Rule 16 potentially satisfies the ‘legality’ prong. However, even at an interim stage, before finally ascertaining Rule 16’s constitutionality by testing it against the other proportionality parameters identified above, the Bombay High Court should have considered whether the absence of procedural safeguards under this rule merited staying its operation.

For these reasons, the Bombay High Court could have ruled differently in deciding whether to stay the operation of Rule 16 in the Leaflet case. While these are important considerations at the interim stage, ultimately the larger question of constitutionality must be addressed. The second post in this series will critically examines the legality and constitutionality of Rule 16.

[1] Modern Dental College and Research Centre and Ors. v. State of Madhya Pradesh and Ors., (2016) 7 SCC 353; Justice K.S. Puttaswamy & Ors. v. Union of India (UOI) & Ors., (2019) 1 SCC 1; Anuradha Bhasin and Ors. v. Union of India (UOI) & Ors., (2020) 3 SCC 637.