Supreme Court directs search engines to take down sex determination info

Vasudha Misra

After delivering a judgment on guidelines for pre-natal sex determination last week, the Supreme Court today expressed its concern on the falling sex ratio in the country. The Court also directed setting up of a nodal agency to address complaints of pre-natal sex determinations advertisements.

The case was heard by a Bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy in a PIL filed by Sabu Matthew George, against the usage of search engines to access results for sex selection.

The Bench went so far as to tell search engines, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft that,

“In a country like India, sex ratio is falling sharply. Whether you make money or not, we are not concerned.”

The hearing today also threw up an interesting question of law – one regarding interpretation of Section 22 of the Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 (Act), particularly the Explanation to the said section. Section 22 is a bar on advertisements relating to pre-natal determination of sex.

The explanation to the section sets out the scope of the term ‘advertisement’ and reads as follows:

“advertisement” includes any notice, circular, label, wrapper or any other document including advertisement through internet or any other media in electronic or print form and also includes any visible representation made by means of any hoarding, wall-painting, signal, light, sound, smoke or gas.

Counsels for the respondents, including Senior Advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi argued that the term “advertisement” as contained in Section 22 should be considered only in a ‘commercial sense’. They contended that any information on the internet cannot fall within its ambit and that access to information should be unfettered. They also argued that a blanket ban on different terms would lead to blocking of various other information.

Additional Solicitor General PS Narasimha, who appeared for the Centre, submitted that the scope of Section 22 is not restricted to commercial advertisements but covers all kinds of communications.

The petitioners also contended the same submitting that using search engines to search for innovative terms relating to sex determination was blatantly unfair. Advocate Sanjay Parikh appeared for the petitioner.

The Bench was also accosted with the suggestion that until a test for the issue, was laid down, the problem could not be resolved.

The Bench, therefore, directed the Central government to constitute a nodal agency to deal with complaints regarding presence of online advertisements information and search terms related to sex determination. The Nodal Agency has been tasked with informing the search engines of the complaints, whereupon the search engines have to take down the same within 36 hours.

The order is in the nature of an interim order till February 17, which is when the matter is next posted.

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