Supreme Court advises courts and tribunals not to rely on Wikipedia
The Customs, Excise and Service Tax Appellate Tribunal had relied on the free online encyclopaedia to support their findings
The Supreme Court has cautioned the courts and adjudicating authorities against reliance on free online sources like Wikipedia.
In the HP India Sales Pvt Ltd vs Commissioner of Customs (Import) Nhava Sheva case, the bench comprising Justice Surya Kant and Justice Vikram Nath advised the courts to impress upon their counsels to depend on authentic sources other than Wikipedia since the online encyclopaedia was crowd-sourced with user-generated edits.
The court made the observation after noting that the Commissioner of Customs (Appeal) and the Mumbai Customs, Excise and Service Tax Appellate Tribunal (CESTAT) had relied on Wikipedia to support their findings.
The bench stated, "While we expressly acknowledge the utility of these platforms, which provide free access to knowledge across the globe, we must also sound a note of caution against using such sources for legal dispute resolution."
It added, "We say so because these sources, despite being a treasure trove of knowledge, are based on a crowd¬-sourced and user-generated editing model that is not completely dependable in terms of academic veracity. It can promote misleading information as has been noted by this court on previous occasions."
The top court thus set aside the CESTAT order holding that desktop computers weighing under 10 kilograms were to be classified as 'portable' and would attract higher customs duty than other computers.
The appellant companies had moved the apex court after CESTAT upheld the orders of the officials effectively meaning that their imported desktops could not avail of lower customs duty available to heavier processing units.
The counsel for the companies pointed out that the 10 kg bracket was meant for laptops and not goods that could not function without an external power source. He argued that functionality and ease of transporting the goods also needed to be considered to determine the functionality.
The counsel added that the notes of the World Customs Organization Harmonized System also did not classify desktop computers as portable. Therefore, a dictionary meaning of the term could not be relied upon.
While demonstrating the items in the court to buttress the arguments, the counsel for the respondents argued that since portability was not defined in the concerned statute (Central Excise Act), it should be interpreted on the principle of general parlance. Relying on the decision in the Mathuram Agrawal vs the State of MP case, the counsel added that the intention of the legislature has to be discerned from the plain meaning of the language used in taxation statutes.
Earlier, the court stated that the argument about needing an external power source to be functional was not applicable, as it was not contemplated. It held that the word 'portable' should not have been defined by relying on a dictionary meaning that could contain all kinds of hues of associated meanings, as was held in the decision in the CCE vs Krishna Carbon Paper Co case.
On a desktop being considered portable, the top court explained, "The first ingredient is their ability to be carried around easily, which includes all aspects such as weight and their dimensions. We must hasten to add that in appropriate cases, this assessment would also take into consideration the necessary accessories that are required for safe and efficient usage such as the mounted stands or any power adapters."
It added, "The second ingredient is that the ADP must be suitable for daily transit of a consumer and would include aspects such as durability to withstand frequent commute and damage protection. An example of the same would be the availability of protection cases."
However, the bench noted that none of the two criteria applied to the desktop computers of the appellants given their dimensions and lack of cases. It meant they could not be easily carried. "The dimensions of the concerned goods make it illogical and unviable for daily transit," the court said.
The judges ruled, "Scientific progress has greatly reduced the weight associated with high performance in the context of ADPs. It is not surprising that the advent of LED technology, faster microchips, etc. has made it possible for mobile phones to have performance specifications, which merely a decade ago was possible only on high-end laptops. We must, therefore, be cognizant of such an impact on the consumer's understanding of any good or trade."
Referring to the heavy personal computers of the past, the court stated, "They used to weigh more than 10 kilograms. The predecessors of laptops were designed at the relevant time to be portable and used to fold up neatly in one box with a handle. Despite their weight and the size comparable to a small suitcase, they could still be transported, albeit without a wagon."
The bench thus allowed the appeals and directed the respondents to levy a duty on the products as applicable to the general processing units. It also clarified that the prevalent self-assessment by the appellants of their goods had to be accepted since the burden of proof to deem otherwise was on the customs department. And the latter failed to do so.
Advocates V Lakshmikumaran, Charanya Lakshmikumaran, Mounica Kasturi, Apeksha Mehta, and Pranav Mundra represented the appellants.
Senior advocate Arijit Prasad with advocates Rupesh Kumar, Adit Khorana, OP Shukla, Sunita Sharma, Raj Bahadur Yadav, and Mukesh Kumar Maroria appeared for the respondents.