Warning that the declining number of girl child was a "disastrous signal for mankind", Supreme Court today directed search engines -- Google, Yahoo and Microsoft -- to set up in-house expert bodies "forthwith" to ensure deletion of materials which went against Indian laws prohibiting pre-natal sex determination.
Expressing concern over the declining sex ratio, the apex court, however, assured the Indian arms of the multinational cyber giants that it would not intiate any contempt proceedings against them as the idea was to make them "responsive" to the local laws and concerns.
A bench of Justices Dipak Misra and R Banumathi said in case of any doubt, the in-house expert bodies of these firms may communicate with the nodal agency appointed by the Centre for guidance and necessary action.
"We reiterate our directions dated September 19, 2016 and further add that respondents number 3 to 5 (Google India Pvt Ltd, Yahoo India and Microsoft Corporation (I) Pvt Ltd) shall appoint an in-house expert body which shall take steps if any words or key words that is shown on internet and which has the potential to go counter to section 22 of Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994 shall be deleted forthwith," the bench said.
Section 22 of the PCPNDT Act pertains to prohibition of advertisements relating to pre-natal determination of sex and punishment for contravention.
"That apart, the in-house expert body shall on its own understanding delete anything which violates section 22 of the Act and in case there is any doubt, they can communicate with the nodal agency appointed by Union of India and thereafter they will be guided by the nodal agency," the court said.
During the hearing, the court pulled up the companies saying they know how to make money but do not show respect to the Indian law.
"The whole problem is that they (search engines) do not have respect for the law of the country," the bench observed during the hearing and made it clear that search engines will have to block all such materials which, by any mean, help in sex determining of foetus and runs counter to the law.
Google India said it obeyed the court's directions.
"We have always been compliant and are supportive of removing paid content based on terms linked to gender selection tests. We have taken additional action to disable auto-complete predictions for relevant terms on our site and show a warning that tells users (that) pre-natal gender screening or testing is illegal in India," the firm said in its statement.
The advocates representing the search engines contended they had respect for the Indian law and were not violating the directions passed by the apex court.
The bench, meanwhile, asked the Centre to take steps within a week to publicise its recently-set up nodal agency and its mechanism to deal with complaints regarding hosting of sex-determination material on the internet.
Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, appearing for the Centre, told the bench that government's stand was "absolutely clear" that anything which violated section 22 of the Act and helped in determining the sex of a foetus cannot be allowed.
"Our clear objective is to save the girl child. If there are any measures to do it, we will do it and we are willing to do it," the Solicitor General told the court which fixed the matter for further hearing on April 11.
Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, representing Google India Pvt Ltd, told the bench that they have already complied with the earlier orders passed in the matter and whenever the nodal agency informed them that any particular advertisment has to be taken of, it is withdrawan within 36 hours.
"You cannot have a preventive blockage. You can have curative blockage," he said.
However, the bench observed that if the search engines did not withdraw such advertisments even after being informed by the nodal agency, "they will invite the wrath of section 22 of the Act".
"Actually, your system should be so updated that it should automatically block such things on the websites. You should come forward with some proposals to comply with the Indian law," the bench said.
The bench noted in its order that since 2001, the apex court has expressed concern over the decline in sex ratio, saying "it has gone to the extent of saying that when there is a decrease in sex ratio, it is a disaster signal for the mankind".
During the hearing, the bench also observed, "the sex ratio in India is quite low in many states and it is likely to affect the human race. We want Google India Pvt Ltd, Yahoo India and Microsoft Corporation (I) Pvt Ltd to be more statute responsive".
The apex court also took note of submissions of the Solicitor General who said that a paragraph in the additional affidavit of Google India Pvt Ltd "contravene the letter and spirit as enshrined under section 22 of the Act".
The bench, however, allowed Google India's contention and granted it three weeks to file a clarificatory affidavit.
The apex court had earlier asked these search engines to "delete" within 36 hours the advertisements hosted by them pertaining to pre-natal sex determination in India and had directed the Centre to appoint a nodal agency to monitor the websites.
It had said the nodal agency would inform these search engines about any such advertisements on the websites and Indian arms of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo would delete them within 36 hours.
The court was hearing a petition by Sabu Mathew George, a doctor, who is seeking the apex court's intervention in view of the falling sex ratio in the country.
His counsel had earlier claimed that despite the order of the apex court, one can see advertisements and information pertaining to gender determination on such websites.
The court had on September 19 last year said these search engines were under "obligation" to check advertisements about pre-natal sex determination in India and directed them to develop in-house methods to prohibit such content.
Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994 was enacted to stop female foeticides and arrest the declining sex ratio in India. It had banned pre-natal sex determination.