Published On: Tue, Mar 24th, 2015

Now Speak Whats on Your Mind: Supreme Court Strikes down Section 66A of the IT Act

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Independence Day for Netizens

No sooner than the verdict came people took to twitter, facebook and other popular social networking sites  to express their views and opinions on the issue with many believing it to be nothing short of an independence day for the freedom of speech on the internet.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down Section 66A of the IT Act that allowed arrests for objectionable content online. The apex court termed the provision as ‘vague’, saying, “what may be offensive to a person, may not be offensive to others”.

“Section 66A of IT Act clearly affects Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression enshrined under Constitution,” the Supreme Court said.

“Governments may come and go but section 66A will remain forever,” SC added, while refusing to consider Centre’s assurance that the law in question will not be misused.

Stating Section 66A affected the right of the public to know, the court observed that the the section does not fall within the ambit of the reasonable restrictions specified in Article 19 (2).  The reasonable restrictions included under Article 19 of the Constitution are:  are security of the State,  friendly relations with foreign States,  public order,  decency and morality,  contempt of court,  defamation,  incitement to an offence, and the  sovereignty and integrity of India. It also said that Article 19 (2) could be applied when a discussion could lead to violence.

Government still allowed to block websites

The court, however, allowed the government to block websites if their contents had the potential to create communal disturbance, social disorder or affect India’s relationship with other countries.

Since the IT Act 2000 was passed it has been criticized as a draconian law that had the potential to be widely misused to curb the right to free speech and expression.  Amendments to the Act in 2008 made the law more controversial, resulting in 10 petitions over the years in the Supreme Court, challenging various sections of the law including on Constitutional grounds. The verdict of the Supreme Court has wide ranging ramifications for all internet users in the country.

Earlier, a batch of petitions challenged the constitutional validity of certain sections of the cyber law, including a provision under which a person can be arrested for allegedly posting “offensive” contents on websites.

 A bench of Justices J. Chelameswar and R.F. Nariman had on February 26 reserved its judgment after the government concluded its arguments contending that Section 66A of the Information Technology Act cannot be “quashed” merely because of the possibility of its “abuse”.

 Additional Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta had said that the government did not want to curtail the freedom of speech and expression at all which is enshrined in the Constitution, but the vast cyber world could not be allowed to remain unregulated.

However, the court had said that terms like “illegal”, “grossly offensive” and “menacing character” were vague expressions and these words were likely to be misunderstood and abused. Some of the petitions seek setting aside of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act which empowers the police to arrest a person for allegedly posting offensive materials on social networking sites.

 The first PIL on the issue was filed in 2012 by a law student Shreya Singhal, who sought amendment in Section 66A of the Act, after two girls — Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan — were arrested in Palghar in Thane district as one of them posted a comment against the shutdown in Mumbai following Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray’s death and the other “liked” it.

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