No political ads on social media 2-day before polls if Bombay HC orders: EC

The Election Commission (EC) told the Bombay High Court on Friday that it is willing to prohibit any political advertisements on social media 48 hours before polling day, provided the high court issues such orders.

The EC also told a bench of Chief Justice Naresh Patil and Justice N M Jamdar that it was going to ensure implementation of all its previous notifications regulating political advertisements on social media, particularly around the time of elections.

The statement was made by the EC's counsel Pradeep Rajagopal.

He was responding to a query posed by the court on a previous hearing, asking why the EC was hesitant to issue specific directions prohibiting political advertisements on social media 48 hours before an election day.

Rajagopal submitted that the EC was aware that specific rules were required to govern advertisements on social media ahead of elections and that it was going to implement all safeguards to ensure that there were no obstructions to free and fair elections in the country.

"The EC will implement directions passed by it (sic) from time to time with respect to social media intermediaries," Rajagopal said.

"It will also issue directions keeping in view the submissions made by other parties in the PIL on the 48-hour period. If this court passes orders on prohibitory regulations for social media during this 48 hour period, it will implement them," he said.

The court was hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by lawyer Sagar Suryavanshi seeking directions to the Election Commission to regulate fake news in the form of paid political ads on social media.

The PIL had also urged the court to direct the EC to prohibit all persons, whether politicians or private individuals, from posting advertisements related to politics or elections, or paid political content on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter 48 hours before election day.

On the previous hearing, Facebook had told the court that it had introduced strict "pre-verification processes" for all political ads and paid content of "national interest" on their websites in India ahead of the 2019 general elections.

The new system ensures that only bonafide individuals, who are citizens of India, and political organisations based in the country can place political ads.

Twitter and YouTube had told the bench that they already only permitted such political ads that had been verified by the EC.

The social media sites, however, told the court that they could not voluntarily impose a 48-hour ban as sought by the petitioner.

The counsels for Facebook, Google and YouTube said that they could prohibit display of political ads on their websites 48 hours before polling day, if they were directed by the EC to do so.

The Representation of the People's Act already prohibits political campaigning 48 hours before polling day and a notification of the EC regulating ads on TV and print media prohibits publication of political ads 48 hours before polling day.

The court, therefore, asked why the Election Commission could not formulate a similar direction for political ads on social media.

The HC is likely to take up the matter for further hearing on Monday.