New Delhi: The Delhi High Court on Thursday set an eight-week deadline for the Central Information Commission (CIC) to decide on the plea on the Union Home Ministry’s refusal to provide information on electronic surveillance.
The High Court took on record and accepted the CIC counsel’s statement that all endeavour shall be made to decide the appeal expeditiously and in any case within eight weeks.
This came as the CIC counsel submitted in pursuance of the court’s earlier direction to indicate a time frame within which it will be possible for the commission to decide the appeal.
Appearing for the CIC, advocate Gaurang Kanth during the hearing submitted that there has been a backlog due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the commission is presently hearing petitions of 2019, while the appeal by Apar Gupta, a lawyer, co-founder and Executive Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), was filed this year.
The High Court was hearing Gupta’s plea challenging the rejection of his RTI applications seeking statistical information on state-sponsored electronic surveillance
“So you are feeling heavily burdened? I have no problem in passing a direction to decide… but we will also record your inability to decide it expeditiously,” the judge said, PTI reported.
The High Court permitted the petitioner’s counsel to place certain additional documents on record to establish that the material could not be weeded out during the pendency of an RTI application, as claimed by the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO).
The IFF is a registered charitable trust, which defends online freedom, privacy and innovation in India through strategic litigation and campaigns, the plea said.
The petitioner had earlier in December 2018 filed six applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, seeking details of the number of orders passed under Section 69 of the IT Act between January 2016 to December 2018 granting permission for electronic surveillance, as per the petition filed through advocate Vrinda Bhandari.
The petition added the Ministry of Home Affairs had originally claimed that information is exempt for national security and an appeal was filed against the decision and the matter went before the First Appellate Authority (FAA), which refused to intervene.
Gupta, thereafter, filed a second appeal before the CIC, which agreed that the information sought was only statistical details and remanded the matter to the FAA “to revisit the cases, re-examine issues raised, and to decide the cases with a reasoned speaking order after hearing both parties”.
The CPIO argued before the FAA that information about surveillance was no longer available because records are destroyed every six months as per the provisions of the 2009 Interception Rules and, therefore, the RTI requests had become infructuous, the plea said.
The petitioner then again approached the CIC against the submission that the records have been destroyed and the failure of the FAA to interrogate the CPIO on such a claim.
The plea said even though the matter is pending before the CIC, an application for an urgent hearing has been filed and the hearing is yet to take place.
The plea said that in the RTI applications, details were also sought about the number of requests received from various agencies for electronic surveillance, the number of requests that were not approved or rejected as well the number of requests where surveillance was requested for more than 15 days among several other details.
The petitioner said that he had only asked for an anonymised and aggregate figure “to understand the extent of state surveillance”, adding no personally identifiable information was sought.
The petitioner further said the CPIO, however, disposed of the request arguing that disclosure of information related to lawful interception/phone tapping/monitor or decrypt is exempted under the RTI.