While hearing a petition filed by lawyer Sagar Suryawanshi on Friday, the Bombay High Court asked the Election Commission and the petitioner to submit suggestions on regulating paid content on social media 48 hours before polling day.
The PIL seeks directions to the Election Commission of India to prohibit all persons, politicians from posting sponsored advertisements that are political in nature, 48 hours before polling day. The bench of Chief Justice Naresh Patil and Justice NM Jamdar is hearing the matter.
Appearing on behalf of the Election Commission, Advocate Pradeep Rajagopal submitted that Section 126 of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951, prohibited public meetings, processions, campaigns etc., 48 hours before polls. He argued that display of advertisements and paid political content through electronic media just before polling day was already prohibited under the Representation of Peoples Act and social media posts were also covered under these restrictions.
However, petitioner's counsel Dr. Abhinav Chandrachud clarified that the PIL does not seek to stop users from posting political content on Facebook, instead they want Facebook to stop accepting money from private persons or parties for political advertisements 48 hours before elections.
Speaking to Livelaw, Dr. Abhinav Chandrachud said:
"We don't want to stop users from using Twitter or Facebook during that 48-hour blackout period of the election or from posting content that is political in that 48-hr period, we just want Facebook to stop taking money from people for advertising for sponsored ads that are political in nature. We want Facebook to adopt the same guidelines and policy it has for political advertisements in countries like United Kingdom and United States.
For example, now in the US if you want to post a political advertisement on Facebook, you need to submit your driver's license, passport, social security number or some form of identification proof of being a US citizen. This happened after the Russian meddling in US elections in 2016. Similarly, someone sitting in China or Pakistan can pay for an ad on Facebook about cow slaughter 48 hours before the election and spend rumours.
I had submitted in the previous hearing that Facebook, by the virtue of what it does, is not an intermediary under the IT Act. It creates content, modifies the transmission, it is not eligible to the benefit of Section 79 of Information Technology Act, 2000. How can we stop users from using Facebook, users may have hundreds of friends but an advertisement reaches thousands of people."
Finally, the bench asked both the EC and the petitioner to submit suggestions on regulating such paid content in social media during elections.