Facebook, Google and YouTube told the Bombay High Court Monday that they are putting in place strict "pre-verification processes" for online political advertisements on their platforms in India ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. The Internet giants said while they already had a system to check paid content, they have now voluntarily decided to augment these checks to weed out online fake news and malafide political advertisements in the poll season.
The submissions came in response to a direction of the high court, asking the authorities to state what steps they can take to regulate online political advertisements. Online political advertisements came into sharp focus after the 2016 US presidential election.
The court was hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Sagar Suryavanshi, a lawyer, demanding that the Election Commission of India (ECI) regulate fake news in the form of paid political advertisements on social media. The court should direct the ECI to prohibit politics- or election-related advertisements or paid political content on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites 48 hours before the election day, it said.
The lawyers for Facebook, Google and YouTube also said Monday that they can stop political advertisements from appearing on their sites 48 hours before polling if the ECI directs so. The Representation of the People's Act prohibits political campaigning 48 hours before polling, while an ECI notification bans publication of political advertisements during the same period.
Social media sites too are covered by this 2013 notification. But the lawyers of Facebook and Google said the ECI must be directed to ensure stricter implementation of the notification not just by social media but also by political parties. Facebook's counsel Darius Khambata told the bench of Chief Justice Naresh Patil and Justice N M Jamdar that from February 21, Facebook will implement pre-verification processes in India, similar to the ones already operational in the UK, the US and Brazil.
"Beginning Thursday, any Indian national who wishes to post an advertisement on politics or any matter of national interest on Facebook will need to submit his or her ID card issued by a valid Indian authority, submit proof of residence based in India, and pay for it only in Indian currency," said advocate Khambata. This will also help weed out "foreign intervention" ahead of elections and ensure free and fair polls, he said.
Counsel for Google and YouTube (both of which belong to the same group) Iqbal Chagla said while they had already implemented the ECI's notifications on political advertisements, from February 14 they have put in place a pre-verification system similar to the one proposed by Facebook. "We already only carry ads that have been verified or certified by the ECI," Chagla said, adding, "and now, any Indian national wishing to post a political ad is required to submit valid ID, proof of residence, and to pay only in Indian currency."
The bench then directed the ECI to file its reply. The judges said while there is no law prohibiting political advertisements on social media 48 hours before elections, the ECI could take steps to bring in such a regulation.
"If the law is silent, shouldn't the ECI initiate some steps in the interest of democracy and issue necessary directions?" the bench said, asking the poll body to file its affidavit-in-reply by February 28.
(With inputs from agencies.)