Supreme Court Scraps Section 66A of IT Act, Protects Online Freedom of Speech

Introduction

It was in December 2012 that two girls from Mumbai were arrested for posting and ‘liking’ a statement related to the shutting down of the city owing to the funeral of a popular political figure on the social networking site ‘Facebook’. They were charged sharing some content online which according to Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 was ‘grossly offensive’. During the same time, Shreya Singhal, a law student filed a petition for repealing Section 66A with the Supreme Court of India simply because it was going against the right to freedom of speech which is an eminent part of Indian Constitution.

What exactly is Section 66A all about?

According to Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, any individual who sends offensive messages through a computer resource or communication device is punishable. Three broad categories included are:
  • Any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character
  • Any information that is false but that can cause annoyance, danger, inconvenience, obstruction, injury, insult, criminal intimidation, hatred, enmity or ill will
  • Any electronic mail or even a message that is sent to create annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive the recipient regarding the origin of such a message
  • The punishment under this section is that of imprisonment which may be extended upto three years along with a fine.

What made the Supreme Court scrap Section 66A?

In March 2015, the Supreme Court described Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, as ‘vague in its entirety’ and scrapped it from the legal books of the nation. According to the court, the contentious law was unconstitutional because it had become a major barrier to the freedom of speech and apparently turned out to be an encroachment affecting the public’s right to know. According to the petitioners, Section 66A was too vague for the police to avoid arbitrary interpretation and misuse of the law. For instance, a West Bengal professor was arrested in 2012 for a silly reason of sharing a cartoon of a Chief Minister.

                                                           
Supreme Court’s Reasons for Scrapping Sec 66AGovernment’s Reasons for supporting Sec 66A
Termed as “Open ended” and “Unconstitutional” in the eyes of lawIntroduce stringent guidelines to prevent Sec 66A from abused upon
Contradicting the “right and freedom to speech and expression”Welcomes the judgment of Supreme Court on Sec 66A and supports liberty and free speech
The idea of Sec 66A is vague in its terms  the term “grossly offensive”, “inconvenient” and “annoying” are vague and cannot be measured in terms of criminal offence.Support only that interpretation of Section 66A which is consistent with the mandate of Section 19(1) and subject to reasonable restriction on Section 19(2)
Encouraging democracy on social mediums or platforms 

Judgment: http://indiankanoon.org/doc/110813550/

What will be the implications now?

The scrapping of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, is sure to give some respite to people who believe in voicing their opinions. After all why someone should be arrested for sharing what their mind has to say? The Indian Constitution clearly spells out freedom of speech for the citizens of the country. Section 66A was precisely a violation and led to curtailing of the constitutional right of the people of India.

While the scrapping of the Section 66A will be a boon for some in the nation, it is likely to be bane as well. There has to be a certain boundary so that people know till what extent it is acceptable to have that freedom of speech. For instance, contrarily it could lead to a debacle similar to the one that was created in France owing to few French journalists mocking about the religious sentiments of a community. Nothing in excess is ever good. Hence as long as people know that they are not crossing the boundaries, the recent online freedom of speech can be celebrated as a great move.

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