Rejoice for the Supreme Court has struck down Section 66A of the Information and Technology Act. This is the biggest victory for supporters of free speech in recent years.
Section 66A, which was also dubbed ‘Facebook arrest law’, gave the police the right to arrest people for posting “offensive content” on the internet. What constituted “offensive content” was, however, never explained in clear words.
Section 66A of the IT Act Defined:
Punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc.
Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device,—
(a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or
(b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,
(c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages,
shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.
Explanation.— For the purpose of this section, terms “electronic mail” and “electronic mail message” means a message or information created or transmitted or received on a computer, computer system, computer resource or communication device including attachments in text, images, audio, video and any other electronic record, which may be transmitted with the message.
As you can see for yourself, the definition was itself vague. This is exactly what a Supreme Court bench of Justices J Chelameswar and Rohinton F Nariman pointed to.
It is this nebulous use of words and terms that allowed this section to be misused by politicians and their supporters. Prominent among those who were arrested under this section were:
Aseem Trivedi, Mumbai — For cartoons that mocked the parliament for the regular adjournments.
Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan (The Palghar girls), Mumbai — One questioned on Facebook why the entire city was shutdown for Bal Thackeray’s funeral and the other simply liked the post.
Ambikesh Mahapatra and Subrata Sengupta, Jadavpur — Arrested for circulating a cartoon taking a dig at Mamata Banerjee for forcing then Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi, a member of her own party, out of office.
Ravi Srinivasan, Puducherry — Arrested for posting ‘offensive’ messages on Twitter about Congress leader P Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram.
Kanwal Bharti, Uttar Pradesh — Arrested for protesting the suspension of IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal by the ruling Samajwadi Party government on Facebook and pointing fingers at Azam Khan.
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Devu Chodankar, Goa — Booked for posting anti-Modi comment.
Class XI student, Rampur — Sent to jail for posting “objectionable” comments against SP leader Azam Khan.
The Bench said that Section 66A clearly affects the right to freedom of speech and expression enshrined under the Constitution of India.
The government still has the right to block websites if their content had the potential to create the communal disturbance, social disorder or affect India’s relationship with other countries.
Now, over to the lady who fought for Freedom of Expression, took on the Union of India, and emerged victorious.
Then a 21-year-old, Shreya Singhal filed a PIL seeking amendment of Section 66A in 2012 after the arrest of Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan.
Shreya comes from a family of lawyers; her mother is a Supreme Court lawyer and her grandmother was a judge. She is the niece of Congress leader Kapil Sibal’s daughter-in-law. And you know the connection between Sibal and Section 66A.
She was studying astrophysics at the Bristol University in the UK before coming to India to pursue her Law education.
“I am ecstatic. It was grossly offensive to our rights, our freedom of speech and expression and today the Supreme Court has upheld that.”
Ayushmann Khurana was the first among celebrities to congratulate her:
Net freedom establishes the faith not just in our system but also faith in the youth of our country. Well done Shreya Singhal. #Section66A
— Ayushmann Khurrana (@ayushmannk) March 24, 2015
And if you have some patience, you should watch this interview with the lady who has literally earned you your freedom on the internet.
Thank you, Shreya.