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Indian Supreme Court Upholds Free Speech Online

By Altaf Ahmad
2015-03-24
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The Indian Supreme Court building in New Delhi is pictured, Aug. 27, 2014.
The Indian Supreme Court building in New Delhi is pictured, Aug. 27, 2014.
AFP

An amendment to India’s Information Technology Act (ITA) of 2000 curbs free speech and is therefore unconstitutional, the Indian Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The justices struck down Section 66A, a clause adopted in 2009 that regulates content sent from a computer or disseminated on the Internet via social media.

“Section 66A is unconstitutional and we have no hesitation in striking it down,” Justice R.F. Nariman said in reading out the court’s ruling, Agence France-Presse reported.

“The public’s right to know is directly affected by section 66A.”

The justices were adjudicating a public interest lawsuit brought by an online free speech advocate, Shreya Singhal.

The suit stemmed from the 2012 arrest of two Mumbai area women in connection with a Facebook comment that criticized a citywide shutdown following the death of Bal Thackeray, a Maharashtra politician and founder of the hardline Hindu party Shiv Sena. One of the women posted the comment and the other had “liked” it.

“My efforts finally yielded the desired results and curbs on freedom of expression have been lifted,” Singhal, a law student, told BenarNews in a phone interview.

“I am happy that people of India will now be able to express their views without any fear. More significantly, police will not be able to take action against social media users in any case.”

Regulating speech on the Net

The clause in question states that "Any person who sends by any means of a computer resource any information that is grossly offensive or has a menacing character; or any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine,” according to the International Business Times.

Since 2009, at least 10 cases have arisen from Section 66A’s enforcement, the Associated Press reported.

These include a case from three years ago, when a chemistry professor and his neighbor in Kolkata were taken into custody for forwarding a cartoon that lampooned West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, according to AP.

‘A global village’

The clause’s revocation boosts free speech on the Internet, which is fast becoming a growing source of information and communication in India, said people who reacted to the court’s ruling.

“We are living in the age of Information and Technology. The world has become a global village, and, in such a situation, freedom of expression in its real essence is a must for dissemination of information and exchange of opinions. It is indeed a good move, and will allow people to freely express their views and shape opinions on public matters,” said Kamal Sharma, an IT professional from Bangalore.

“Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, are increasingly being used in India by people to express their feelings, even on issues relating to peace and security. Earlier users would hesitate to share their feelings freely, especially on sensitive issues,” Ashiba Anam

Siddique, a student at Jamia Hamdard University in New Delhi, told BenarNews.

However, some expressed skepticism about the ruling. The court’s decision to remove controls on free speech online could pave the way for the dissemination of false or provocative content via the Internet, others warned.

“In the absence of any embargo on freedom of speech, social media users may resort to provocative and inflammatory comments on issues, or against individuals in some cases,” Dr. Rashmi Divan, a dietician who works at Vinayak Hospital in Delhi, told BenarNews.

The headline of an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Indian Supreme Court as the "Indian High Court."

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