The Supreme Court of India has delivered a landmark judgment in scrapping section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which prescribed 'punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc.' and had been branded as grossly 'unconstitutional' by various lawyers and legal advisors.
Here's what 66A of the IT (Amendment) Act, 2008 stated: 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;(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, or (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.
As per the study conducted by the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, intermediaries over-comply and tend to take down even legitimate information when they receive a takedown notice. There were also several arrests made as a result. The most recent among which was when a class XI student from Bareilly was arrested for sharing an “objectionable” post on Facebook against senior Samajwadi party leader and state Urban Development Minister, Azam Khan.
The ruling by the Supreme Court has not only been welcomed by Shreya Singhal, the young law student who was among the first to challenge it in the Supreme Court, but also lawyers, legal advisors as well as IT leaders.
Pranesh Prakash, a Policy Director with the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, and a graduate of the National Law School tweeted: While the case is about 'Internet' censorship, the SC judgment is against ALL censorship. That's important. #66A
According to Pavan Duggal, advocate, Supreme Court of India, Section 66A symbolized the tyranny of ambiguous vague terms over the purity of legitimate free speech.
"It represented a tool for suppressing bonafide free speech, which was extensively misused. Sec 66A was a foe more than your friend. In scrapping Sec 66A, Supreme Court has done a great service to the cause of free speech of vibrant digital Indians. Digital free speech in India owes a great deal to the SC ruling," said Duggal.
Various Indian IT leaders also expressed their satisfaction towards the apex court's ruling, and called it a balanced judgment.
Anjani Kumar, CIO, Safexpress says, the ruling is by and large, a favorable one. “Previously, people who were writing against the establishment were being harassed. However, with this ruling, the apex court has protected the constitutional right of freedom of speech,” he said.
There will be freedom of speech and everyone will be able to express their views openly on social media platforms. It will help maintain an equilibrium over a period of time,” said T.G Dhandapani, group CIO, TVS Motors.
While the general sentiment was fairly positive. Manas Mati, executive director and technology head, Walt Disney said, “I think the Section should not have been scrapped. Every person needs to be responsible and accountable for what they post on social media.”
Accountable or not, the judgment clearly indicates that's there won't be any arrests on the subjective interpretation of vague expressions such as “grossly offensive” and “menacing character” etc. under section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
“However, the ruling is a very balanced one, with the court stating that the government has the right to remove objectionable content, but not arrest the person. The negative can be that some people go overboard on social media and they need to be checked," Kumar said.