The Supreme Court on Friday asked the Centre to clarify whether it was contemplating to form guidelines or framework for linking social media accounts of users with the 12-digit biometric unique identifier Aadhaar.
The court said the matter, which would help in tracing the originator of a content, needs to be decided at the earliest.
A bench of justices Deepak Gupta and Aniruddha Bose said, “At this stage, we do not know whether we can decide this issue or the high court will decide”.
“If the Union of India is contemplating any guidelines or framework on the issue in the near future, then we can give some time to you (Centre),” the bench said.
The top court said it would not go into the merits of the case and would only decide the plea filed by Facebook Inc, which is seeking transfer of cases related to Aadhaar linking pending before high courts of Madras, Bombay and Madhya Pradesh to itself.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, told the bench it has no objection to transfer of the cases as considerable judicial time has been spent by high courts on such cases.
Senior advocates Mukul Rohatgi and Kapil Sibal, appearing for Facebook and instant messaging app WhatsApp, said they have filed two appeals against Madras High Court orders.
The bench said it will list these two appeals alongwith the transfer petition and posted the matter for hearing on September 24.
The Tamil Nadu government in its reply to the transfer petition has claimed that Facebook Inc and other social media companies were not complying with Indian laws, resulting in “increased lawlessness” and difficulties in “detecting crimes”.
It had sought modification of the August 20 order of the apex court directing the Madras High Court to continue hearing pleas for linking social media profiles with Aadhaar but restraining it from passing any orders.
The high court is at an advanced stage of hearing but due to the apex court’s August 20 order, it deferred the hearing on those petitions, the state government had said.
Referring to different criminal cases, the state government had said local law enforcement authorities have attempted to seek information from these companies for investigation and detection of crimes on several occasions.
It had said that these companies ask authorities to send letters rogatory “despite operating on Indian soil” and have in all cases “failed to provide complete information”.
On August 20, the apex court had sought response from the Centre, Google, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube and others on Facebook Inc’s plea seeking transfer of cases, related to linking of social media accounts with Aadhaar, pending in high courts to the apex court.
Facebook Inc, while seeking the transfer of the cases to the top court, had contended that whether service providers can be asked to share data with probe agencies to help them in criminal investigation needs to be decided by the apex court as it will have a global effect.
The social media giant had argued that different high courts have taken contrary views and for the sake of uniformity it would be better if the cases are heard at the Supreme Court.
It had said that sharing of data with third party involves privacy concerns of users spread across the country and the case of this magnitude should be heard at the apex court.
The top court had asked social media companies including Facebook and WhatsApp to explain what would be the effect of recent amendments in Aadhaar Act by which the 12-digit unique identity number could be shared with the private party for larger public interest.
The state government has argued that both Facebook and WhatsApp have accepted the jurisdiction of the Madras High Court in dealing with the issue which would help agencies check fake news, pornographic content, terror messages as the originator could be traced.
It had said that an IIT professor is helping the Madras High Court to identify the originator of messages on these social media platforms.
All the pleas in the three high courts have sought a declaration that Aadhaar or any other government-authorised identity proof should be made mandatory to authenticate social media accounts.
Facebook has sought a stay on the proceedings in various high courts.
Facebook said that it would suffer irreparable loss if the proceedings were not stayed at this stage, as conflicting decisions on the prayer seeking to link Aadhaar with social media platforms would adversely impact its platform used throughout India.
The plea said that the common questions involve the interpretation of important Central statutes including the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Aadhaar and Other Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2019 which would directly impact the central and state governments.
The Madras High Court had expanded the scope of the case to consider the issue of online abuse and fake news being circulated through social media and sought to define the liabilities of intermediaries in cases of fake news and cyber abuse.