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Shreya Singhal vs Union of India – Freedom of Speech and Expression on the Internet

Shreya Singhal vs Union of India – Freedom of Speech and Expression on the Internet

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What is the Shreya Singhal v. Union of India case?

  • Shreya Singhal v. Union of India is a judgment by a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India in 2015, on the issue of online speech and intermediary liability in India.
  • The Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, relating to restrictions on online speech, as unconstitutional on grounds of violating the freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.

Facts of the case

  • In 2012,Two girls were arrested on a Facebook post regarding the displeasure of Bandh in Mumbai post-Bal Thackery’s death were booked and arrested under Sec 66A of IT Act, 2000.
  • In 2013, the Union Government recommended that the arrest of a person made under Section 66A of the IT Act shall not be without prior authorization of the superior officer, who is not below the rank of Inspector General of Police.

Provisions of Information Technology Act, 2000

  • It regulates the use of the internet including the message service, social media, etc.
  • It creates separate offences for the misuse of the internet & prescribes higher punishment for similar offences committed in print/electronic media.
    For Example –
  • Sec 66A made defamation a cognizable offence with a punishment of not more than 3 years with/without a fine.
  • But, the same offence is a non-cognizable offence under IPC.
  • Sec 67A of the IT Act confers a punishment that may range from 5-10 years of imprisonment with a 1-2 lakh fine, for transmitting obscene or vulgar offences across the internet.
  • A similar offence would attract lesser punishment under IPC.
  • Sec 69A provided power to govt. to issue directions to block public access of any information through any computer source.

Why Section 66A was challenged?

  • Section 66A provides punishment for sending offensive messages through communication services.
  • These messages may be any information created, transmitted or received on a computer system, resource or device including attachments in the form of text, images, audio and video. In
  • Section 66A had extremely wide parameters, which allow whimsical interpretations by law enforcement agencies.
  • There was no clarity over terms like offensive, grossly menacing, annoying, etc opening it to many interpretations.
  • It outlawed all political satire, cartoons, caricatures and spoof writing indirectly.
  • The vague and arbitrary terms used in the Section led to much misuse of both personal and political nature, with several criminal cases being instituted against innocuous instances of online speech, including political commentary and humour.

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Section 66A vs Fundamental Rights

  • It infringed on the right to free expression guaranteed by Article 19 (1)(a).
  • It even violated the right to equality guaranteed by Article 14 because separate offences cannot be created for people who use the internet. However, the Supreme Court rejected this view because there is a discernible difference between the internet and other modes of communication.

Supreme courts stand

  • In conflict with FR’s
    • The judgment had found that Section 66A was contrary to both Articles 19 (free speech) and 21 (right to life) of the Constitution. The entire provision was struck down by the court.
  • Unconstitutional
    • The Supreme Court ruled that Section 66A is unconstitutional and void because it is excessively vague, open-ended, and undefined.
  • Ambiguous
    • The Court ruled that the ambiguity of Section 66A deprived people of their freedom of expression and right to descend. It had a chilling effect on free expression.
    • It did not provide clear guidance, either to internet users or law enforcement agencies, on what acts on the internet constituted defamation.
  • Undefined
    • The court also said that the provision, introduced in 2009 to the original Act of 2000, used expressions completely open-ended and undefined” and every expression used was nebulous in meaning.
  • Drawing a line
    • The court also observed that the challenge was to identify where to draw the line. Traditionally, it has been drawn at incitement while terms like obstruction and insult remain subjective.

What could be the repercussions of striking off section 66A?

  • Some experts argue that India’s IT Act only provides legal remedies for a small number of cybercrimes and that many others have been overlooked.
  • New types of cybercrime are emerging daily, which has been facilitated by Sec 66A’s ambiguity.
  • In this regard, the ruling will only represent a step backwards for the government and the country.
  • However, proving instances of cyberstalking, bullying, or annoyance using non-Internet world provisions may be difficult. Because of the Internet’s instantaneous nature, these activities are easily facilitated.

Significance of the case

  • While the decision of the Supreme Court is of immense significance in protecting online free speech against arbitrary restrictions, Section 66A, which was declared unconstitutional, has continued to be used as a punitive measure against online speech in several cases.
  • The reading down of Section 79 of the IT Act by the Supreme Court, to include the requirement that a takedown notice must be sanctioned by a court or government authority, has also been interpreted by the Delhi High Court in the case of MySpace v. Super Cassettes, to not apply to cases of copyright infringement under the Indian Copyright Act.

Mains model question

  • Explain why the Supreme Court of India ruled that Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act was unconstitutional. Examine the decision’s constitutional and commercial implications.

References