MouthShut.com remains one of the chief forums for consumers to vent their frustration against bad services and ill-thought-out products. But the website is under threat from law-enforcement authorities and private companies who have flooded their complaint lines with orders for deleting reviews.
Such orders are possible under the Information Technology Rules (Intermediaries Guidelines) 2011. And now, MouthShut.com has filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court to quash the rules and declare them in violation of articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution, which guarantee freedom of expression.
A banner on MouthShut.com asking members to join their fight
The petition pleads that the IT Rules 2011 are ambiguous and do not explicitly state what is permissible and what isn’t. When websites like MouthShut.com have to follow the guidelines set by IT Rules, it is their responsibility to screen user-generated content and censor anything that might be in contravention of the rules. However, failure to do so could result in legal action being taken by any third-party against MouthShut.com and the likes.
Faisal Farooqui, CEO of MouthShut.com, believes that IT Rules open up the possibility of private companies and service providers tamping down on genuine negative reviews. One of the USPs of MouthShut.com is that it takes in all kinds of reviews and the possibility of negative reviews being pulled is sure to damage their reputation. “A very small percentage of companies wish that negative reviews about them would simply go away. Under the guise of ‘harmful speech’ they approach us to remove such reviews. The new law is vague and would require MouthShut.com to remove any negative review about a company or brand simply because they do not like it, irrespective of the facts stated in the review,” he was quoted as saying by CRN.
Farooqui added: “We have been threatened with hundreds of legal notices, cybercrime complaints and defamation cases. At other times, officers from various police stations call our office, demanding deletion of various reviews or face dire consequences under the IT Act 2011.” MouthShut.com looks into every complaint filed against their reviews, but follows a non-deletion policy.
Farooqui added that reviews on the Internet are like any other form of expression. “The Internet simply changes the mode of communication. It does not alter the fundamental fact that behind the consumer reviews posted on MouthShut.com are the views of Indian citizens who have previously been expressing themselves freely using different mediums including face-to-face meetings, articles in newspapers, newsletters and magazines and other public forums. Curbing the right to online reviews or attaching strings to it is a disservice to the right of self expression guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.”