In no mood for any leniency with the Lok Sabha elections just around the corner, the Bombay High Court bench comprising Chief Justice Naresh Patil and Justice NM Jamdar today, pulled up the Election Commission of India for failing to formulate appropriate regulations restricting and managing political advertisements on social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter 48 hours before the polling day. The online blackout for political ads has been demanded on similar lines with restriction existing on campaigning and political ads and hoardings 48 hours before the election day, as warranted under The Representation of the People's Act.
The bench questioned the Election Commission seeing its reluctant attitude in issuing regulatory or prohibitory orders on online ads, as indicated by several unnecessary adjournments sought by the Commission in dealing with such an important issue.
Pradeep Rajagopal, counsel representing Election Commission, however, negated the presence of any reluctance on Commission's part and submitted an affidavit informing the court of the proposed pre-verification rules for political ads.
Election Commission further submitted that it had conducted a meeting with various social media intermediaries in New Delhi earlier this month, wherein it had been agreed upon by the intermediaries to adopt a 'voluntary code of ethics' ensuring political ads were displayed on their respective platforms only after they were verified by the ECI.
However, the court noted that the issue of the 48-hour blackout on online political ads before election day was not discussed in the meeting.
Dissatisfied with the counsel's response, the bench said the ECI's conduct through the hearings made it apparent that it was "hesitant" to bring about such regulations and it cannot relieve its responsibility by depending on social media intermediaries to impose voluntary regulations for the elections. The bench then reserved its order on the matter.
The matter was brought to court's attention by a PIL filed by Sagar Suryavanshi, a lawyer, seeking to prohibit fake news or election-related advertisements or paid political content on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites 48 hours before the Election Day.
In the previous hearing on the matter, Internet giants Facebook, Google and YouTube had informed the High Court that they will bring in new rules for political ads on their social media platforms to prevent “Foreign intervention” in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls and stop those ads to appear on their sites 48 hours before polling, however only if the ECI directs so.
Senior advocate Darius Khambata, representing Facebook, said that its new policy will be in place from February 21 and be similar to the ones introduced last year in the US, Brazil and France and will include authorization process for persons seeking to post a political advertisement and also issues of national importance. The advertisements will have a prominent disclaimer as well as disclosure of who has paid for them, assured Facebook representative.