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Search Engine and Prenatal Sex Determination: Walking the Tight Rope of the Law

Posted by Geetha Hariharan at Jan 29, 2015 07:00 PM |
In Sabu George v. Union of India, the Supreme Court is looking at the constitutionality of sex-selection ads appearing on search engines, either as search results or ads placed on the search pages. Balaji Subramanian and Geetha Hariharan analyse the relevant provision of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994.


The Supreme Court, in Sabu George v. Union of India and Ors. (WP (C) 341/2008), is looking into the presence of material regarding pre-natal sex determination on search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo!. The petitioner alleges that search engines have been displaying content that falls foul of §22 of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994, as amended in 2002 (“the Act”).

The relevant parts of §22 that search engines are alleged to have violated are as follows:

22. Prohibition of advertisement relating to pre-natal determination of sex and punishment for contravention.-

  1. No person, organization, Genetic Counselling Centre, Genetic Laboratory or Genetic Clinic, including clinic, laboratory or centre having ultrasound machine or imaging machine or scanner or any other technology capable of undertaking determination of sex of foetus or sex selection shall issue, publish, distribute, communicate or cause to be issued, published, distributed or communicated any advertisement, in any form, including internet, regarding facilities of pre-natal determination of sex or sex selection before conception available at such centre, laboratory, clinic or at any other place.
  2. No person or organization including Genetic Counselling Centre, Genetic Laboratory or Genetic Clinic shall issue, publish, distribute, communicate or cause to be issued, published, distributed or communicated any advertisement in any manner regarding pre-natal determination or preconception selection of sex by any means whatsoever, scientific or otherwise” (emphasis supplied)

Explanation.- For the purposes of this section, ‘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.

From a cursory reading, it would appear that the section serves as a clear and unequivocal ban on advertisements for clinics or other laboratories that perform pre-natal sex determination. However, the Supreme Court seems to have landed itself into a mess by muddling the distinction between web/online advertisements (in the sense that the word has been used in the quoted provision) and organic search results. The court has received little assistance from the words of the statute, since the Act contains no exhaustive definition of ‘advertisement’. The closest thing to such a definition is the explanation to §22, which only specifies that the term is inclusive of some common forms of adverts – label wrappers, audiovisual representations, etc. This is not a definition, and does not expand the meaning of the word to include organic search results, which are commonly understood not to be advertisements (see here and here, for example). This distinction was pointed out to the court in the submission of the Group Coordinator, Cyber Laws Formulation and Enforcement Division, Department of Information Technology, as noted by the bench in its order dated the 4th of December 2014.

It is our view that this distinction is of vital importance to the entire debate surrounding the PNDT Act, and therefore we have clearly differentiated between organic search results and “sponsored links”, or advertisements, wherever required.

In order to examine whether search engines were in compliance with the law, we systematically searched for terms most likely to trigger advertisements that would violate §22 of the Act. Further, we selected search engines across the market spectrum, from high-revenue organisations likely to have performed comprehensive due diligence (Google, Bing, etc.) to relatively low-revenue operators who did not have offices in India, or dedicated service offerings specific to India, and were therefore unlikely to have taken special measures to comply with the provisions of the PNDT Act (Yandex, DuckDuckGo, etc.). Further, where search engines had India-specific websites, we checked to see whether there was any difference in the advertising outputs of the India site and the US site.

Since the advertising systems work on a bidding mechanism, where the same keywords were likely to trigger different ads based on the rates selected by advertisers, our methodology also included making multiple (five, in most cases) iterations of searches that yielded advertisements, even if the ads displayed were not violative of the Act.

Online Advertisements

The results of this analysis (tabulated below) are surprising, to say the least. First, we found that major search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing (constituents of the advertising alliance, the Yahoo! Bing Network) did not display incriminating ads for many of the searches we attempted [see Table 1 below]. In searches for “sex selective abortion”, for example, Google even provided sponsored links to NGOs attempting to generate awareness against the practice. Nor were any non-compliant ads present on their US sites. No violative ads were observed on Yandex. DuckDuckGo did display a questionable advertisement for the term “prenatal sex determination”, but we shall discuss this in detail later.


However, there were some advertisements of questionable legal status. In Google, for instance, our searches for “Dubai indian pregnancy centre” and a litany of similar searches showed searches that featured international services. These services for sex-selection would, presumably, extend to India [see Table 2 below].

Table 1

Search Engine
"UAE pregnancy gender"
"Dubai Indian pregnancy gender""Pregnancy gender determination"

"Prenatal ultrasound India"

"Dubai India sex ultrasound"

Google (.com,
Advertisements of fertility centres in the Middle East, that conduct sex determination tests. Some prominently feature assistance to international patients.
Advertisements of UK Laboratory that sells Prenatal Gender Test Kits. Prominently featured International shipping.
No ads.
Offers Pre-natal Ultrasound scans, does not conduct sex determination test.
Does not mention explicit sex determination or International Services.
No ads. No ads. Advertisements of Ultrasound Laboratory in the USA that conducts sex determination tests.
No ads. No ads.
Bing No ads. No ads. No ads. No ads. No ads.


Advertisements within Search Results

We also examined the search results themselves to check whether the links led to advertisements. On the basis of our searches we found that there are instances both in Google and Yahoo!, where, when we clicked on the search result, we were directed to advertisements. Bing and Rediff, in these searches, did not lead to any prohibited links. Our findings are tabulated below:

Search Engine"Indian pregnancy gender"
"Foetal sex determination""Ultrasound pregnancy"
"Ultrasound screening""Is my baby boy or girl""Baby boy or girl""Pregnancy gender determination"
Google (.com, No ads. Yes. Gender Predictor Kit ( No ads. Yes. Gender Scan ( No ads. No ads. No ads.
Yahoo Potentially violative. Intelligender Gender Prediction Test ( Yes. Gender Predictor Kit ( No ads. No ads. Potential violation. Gender Predictor ( No ads. No ads.
Bing No ads. No ads. No ads. Yes several results No ads. No ads. No ads.
Rediff No ads. No ads. No ads. No ads. No ads. No ads. No ads.

Given that some search results do indeed seem to violate §22, we then examined the advertising policies of those search engines alleged to display prohibited advertisements in Sabu George – Google, Yahoo! and Bing.

Advertising Policies of Search Engines

The Yahoo! Bing Network, in its advertising guidelines, has an entire section dedicated to ads for pharmacy and health care products and services. In it, there exists a comprehensive list of advertisements prohibited specifically due to the existence of Indian law – such as, for example, ads for miracle cures. Further, under the ‘Family Planning’ category on the same page, the Network acknowledges the existence of regulatory restrictions against advertisements for abortion services, paternity tests, and pre-natal sex determination in India. The consequences of non-compliance with the guidelines are laid out clearly on the same page – they include ad disapprovals, domain blocks, and account suspensions. Despite this, a search for “pregnancy gender determination” displayed an advertisement of an ultrasound lab in the United States that conducts sex determination tests [Table 2].

Google’s Adwords service has a similar policy statement, titled ‘Legal requirements & serving limitations’ for advertisements on its network. At the outset, Google asserts that the advertiser is responsible for the legality of the ad’s contents:

“As an advertiser, you're always responsible for ensuring that you comply with all applicable laws and regulations, in addition to Google's advertising policies, for all of the locations where your ads are showing. The guidelines below are intended to help highlight some areas where we've seen advertisers violate legal requirements in the past. However, this is not an exhaustive list of legal issues that you may need to consider, so we urge you to do your own research regarding appropriate advertising practices for the place where your business operates, as well as any other places where your ads are showing.”

Further, in its list of local legal requirements, under the head of ‘Regulated Products & Services’, Google clearly acknowledges that existing legal prohibitions shall be enforced against advertisements for, inter alia, infant food products and gender determination in India. Advertisements for infant food products are prohibited under §3(a) of the Infant Milk Substitutes Act, 2003. As with the Yahoo! Bing Network, the consequences for violating the advertising guidelines include disapproval of the ad, disabling of the domain from the ad network, and suspension of accounts. Despite these precautions, Google did show display some advertisements that would fall foul of §22, such as those we found in Table 2.

But it seems, at least, that in the case of major search engines, there exist concrete policies to back the relative lack of advertisements violating §22 of the PNDT Act. However, it is possible that these policies were evolved after the Writ Petition in Sabu George was filed in 2008.

Sources connected to the case indicate that the petitioner has alleged the presence of violative ads, and we have no data regarding 2008 advertising policies at either of these search engines. The Yahoo! Bing Network, however, does have an Editorial guidelines change log, stretching back all the way to the Network’s inception in 2012. The log does not detail any changes to the policy against ads for sex determination in India, so it follows that the Yahoo! Bing Network policy has existed at least from September 2012.

Interestingly, Yandex, the Russian search provider, appears to have prevented ads relating to pre-natal sex determination for different reasons. In its Advertising Requirements, Yandex mandates several restrictions on advertisements relating to medicines, medical products and medical services, which require licenses, registrations with Russian federal authorities, etc. to be produced to Yandex before an ad can be placed. Yandex has placed these restrictions in pursuance of Russian federal laws, but it appears that they have had the unintended consequence of keeping the site clear of advertisements that violate §22 of the PNDT Act, as well.

Finally, we come to the case of DuckDuckGo, which displayed questionable content in response to the term “prenatal sex determination” – an ad for ultrasound imaging services provided in the US. A similar ad was seen on Yahoo, as noted earlier. Even this, however, would not be a violation of the Act, since the service was located outside India, and the ad was placed by a foreign citizen residing in a foreign jurisdiction.

It is well-known that India is one of the few countries that has a ban on pre-natal sex determination, and it is a documented practice for couples to travel abroad and undergo diagnostic tests that enable them to discern the sex of the foetus – Thailand has been a destination of choice, if news reports are to be believed. Further, such non-Indian advertisements were seen on Google around 2009, and the argument made by Google’s counsel then stands today – that the situation was akin to an Indian library buying Thai magazines containing sex determination-related advertisements and making them available to the Indian public. Those ads are not targeted at Indians; the magazines were not meant for India. If the ad included invitations to foreigners (“Internationally famous for sex selection!”; “Sex of babies from around the world determined!”), and was published knowing that Indians would read it, then there is a greater likelihood that §22 of the Act stands violated. For instance, Google’s results for “UAE pregnancy gender” showed advertisements of fertility centres in the Middle East, some of which advertise for international patients.

In any event, since there exists no ban against the advertiser in his own jurisdiction, it would lead to an absurd result for search engines to be prosecuted for showing such ads to the Indian public, especially when the advertised service is not meant for or available in India. Displaying such a result would be especially detrimental to low-revenue search engines such as DuckDuckGo, who would be unable to conduct adequate due diligence to protect themselves from similar provisions in other Indian laws.

Organic Search Results

Having dealt with the issue of advertising against the provisions of §22, we now shift our focus to organic search results. At the outset, we must acknowledge the fact that the words of the statute specify “advertisement”, and it remains to be seen whether organic search results can be treated as advertisements if they are aimed at selling a product or service to prospective consumers for a price. If organic search results are to be treated as advertisements under §22, then it would amount to imposing an unnaturally high burden on search engines.

As intermediaries, search engines will be given the responsibility to scrutinise and curate the content that they display. Such a model is problematic on several levels. If intermediaries (search engines, in this case) were charged with the responsibility of policing their search results, a chilling effect will, in all likehood, befall online content – search engines, being profit-driven business institutions, will naturally choose to ‘err on the side of caution’, and would rather see some legitimate content taken down rather than risk the possibility of expensive, time-consuming litigation or penalties. In fact, when given the responsibility to take down data and curate organic search results, intermediaries are ham-handed.

Such an approach would necessitate the creation of large and complex structures, much like the means used by the DMCA in the US. Only large, reasonably high-revenue search engines will be able to put in place such mechanisms, so the law creates an undesriable entry barrier. Also, curating search results for content violative of §22 would be even more arduous than curating results for DMCA violations, since under DMCA, there is concrete private incentive for rights-holders to report DMCA violations to search engines. There exists no such incentive for individuals to petition search engines to remove §22 violations, and this affects its effectiveness. For these reasons, it is problematic to read organic search results within the ambit of §22.

Of course, the government can and should expect that online advertisements for sex selection services, inviting people to learn the sex of their foetus, are prohibited. It may do this for reasons of public health and safety, and in order to reduce female-selective abortions. But search results, unlike advertisements, contain medical information, links to anti-sex-selection campaigns and information about female foeticide. It would be unfortunate for the government to expect search providers to actively curate the content of a dynamic ecosystem such as the internet, while at the same time ensuring that legitimate content is preserved.

Sabu George and What Can Be Done

Lamentably, the Supreme Court does not appear to have entered this debate at all. In the latest arguments in Sabu George, the Solicitor General of India Mr. Ranjit Kumar offered the government’s hand in filtering and blocking sex-selection advertisements. Mr. Kumar stated that, “if the URL and the I.P. addresses are given along with other information by the respondents”, and also listing keywords, the Union of India can order website blocking under §69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (amended). The Union’s stance, it would seem, is that either the search engines should block offending ads by themselves, or block on the basis of directions issued by the government.

In its order of 28 January 2015, the Supreme Court has directed that, as an interim measure, “Google, yahoo and Micro Soft [sic] shall not advertise or sponsor any advertisement which would violate Section 22 of the PCPNDT Act, 1994. If any advertise [sic] is there on any search engine, the same shall be withdrawn forthwith by the respondents”. The Court plans to hear arguments on the “total blocking of items that have been suggested by the Union of India” on the next hearing date, February 11, 2015.

Instead of hearing arguments on the feasibility of total blocking of offending online ads, the Supreme Court should ask whether organic search results constitute advertisements. These results are those that appear as the product of the search algorithm, and would take much time and expense to curate. It would also amount to time-consuming and disproportionate content inspection by the search engines. In any event, it seems that the major search engines do comply in large part with §22 of the PNDT Act. Where offending ads are found (like we did during our searches), the notice-and-takedown procedure under §79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 can be put to intelligent use.

The second option noted by the Court, filtering or blocking on the basis of URLs or IP addresses, also stand the danger of overbreadth or overblocking. Such overblocking is routine across filtering regimes in many jurisdictions; for ex., see the Open Net Initiative’s note on filtering (“Filtering’s Inherent Flaws”). It is a danger better averted. In any event, a filtering regime would not affect organic search results, and so the doubt as to the scope of §22 remains.

Pranesh Prakash provided invaluable feedback. Balaji Subramanian and Pranav Bidare performed the searches on different engines. Balaji Subramanian is at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, and is in his 2nd year of law. Pranav Bidare is in his 3rd year of law at the National Law School, Bangalore.