The Delhi High Court on Friday ordered that the proposed e-mail policy, restraining government officials from using services of offshore internet service providers for official purposes, be placed before the Cabinet "at the earliest" for the approval.
"The Additional Solicitor General also states that the draft e-mail policy is now ready for being placed before the Cabinet for approval. The same be done at the earliest," a bench of justices BD Ahmed and Sidhharth Mridul said.
The court referred to an incident in which National Investigation Agency (NIA) had passed on sensitive information relating to a terror case to its officials by using Google services.
"The use of internet services, which transfers public data to offshore locations, concerns the integrity and sovereignty of the country. Why public records should go outside India? This is not permissible under the law," the bench said.
The bench, which also passed a slew of directions, was hearing a PIL filed by former BJP leader KN Govindacharya through his lawyer Virag Gupta. Govindacharya has raised various issues including use of e-mail services, provided by offshore providers, by government officials for official purposes.
The websites evade taxes and make public the personal details of Indian users, the PIL alleged, adding even minors below 13 years of age are being allowed to use Facebook. During the hearing, the counsel for Govindacharya alleged it is a matter of common knowledge that various ministries, including the PMO, have opened accounts on social networking sites -- Facebook and Twitter -- and it is against the Public Records Act and court directions as official records go to servers outside India.
"We are not on Facebook so you please file an additional affidavit on the issue," the bench said. Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Sanjay Jain, appearing for the Centre, said he will take instruction and make a statement before the court on September 26, the next date of hearing.
The court also asked the ASG to make a "categorical" statement on the issue of payment of service tax by websites including Google and Facebook for their commercial operations in India.
On the allegation that certain foreign websites do not pay service tax, the bench said "we do not pass any assessment orders. We just wanted to confirm as to whether the government authorities are acting as per law or not".
It also asked the Centre to file a status report in pursuance of an earlier order on appointment of Grievance Officers by internet firms, including Twitter, under the IT (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules to deal with users' complaints. Govindacharya, in the PIL, has also alleged that websites evade taxes and make public the personal details of Indian users.
The plea has also sought a direction to ensure safety of the data of 140 million Indian users which are transferred "to the US and is being used for commercial gains in violation of the right to privacy."