SC strikes down ‘draconian’ Section 66A

The Supreme Court has struck down a draconian provision that had led to the arrests of many people for posting content deemed to be “allegedly objectionable” on the Internet. The apex court has ruled that Section 66A of the Information Technology Act is unconstitutional in its entirety.

Why?

  • The SC said it is clear that Section 66A arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invades the right of free speech, under article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution, and upsets the balance between such right and the reasonable restrictions that may be imposed on such right and the definition of offences under the provision was open-ended and 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. “What may be offensive to one may not be offensive to another. What may cause annoyance or inconvenience to one may not cause annoyance or inconvenience to another. Even the expression ‘persistently’ is completely imprecise.

Sections 69A and 79 of the Act:

The Bench turned down a plea to strike down sections 69A and 79 of the Act, which deal with the procedure and safeguards for blocking certain websites and exemption from liability of intermediaries in certain cases, respectively.

Controversy surrounding section 66A:

  • In the past few years, the provision has been invoked to make several arrests. On behalf of the victims, several petitions were moved in the Supreme Court, and these were heard at length by the court. The law came in for criticism after several arrests by police over Facebook and other social media postings.
  • Two young women were arrested in Mumbai over a posting which the Shiv Sena found offensive.
  • A lecturer was arrested in Kolkata for forwarding cartoons of chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
  • A writer was arrested in UP for criticising the suspension of IAS officer DS Nagpal.
  • Ravi Srinivasan was arrested for sending a tweet on then finance minister P. Chidambaram’s son Karti.
  • Arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi for displaying cartoons that mocked Parliament
  • 4- Two Air India cabin crew members arrested for allegedly posting indecent jokes about the Prime Minister and for insulting the national flag.
  • Youth arrested for posting against Azam Khan in Rampur, March 2015

What was the Government’s stand?

  • The government had held out the promise that Section 66A of the Information Technology Act would not be used to stifle political dissent, humour that wasn’t vulgar and contrarian views, before a Supreme Court bench that was rehearing a batch of petitions challenging the legality of the law.

Arguments against the Law:

  • The opponents argue the I-T Act cannot prescribe restrictions on a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression that were wider than warranted under Article 19(2), which allows the state to curtail them only on the grounds of public order, security of state etc. Any other restriction on free speech on social media would be an unreasonable restriction under the Constitution.
  • Section 66A defines the punishment for sending “offensive” messages through a computer or any other communication device like a mobile phone or a tablet. A conviction can fetch a maximum of three years in jail and a fine.
  • Will the Supreme Court striking down Section 66 A of the Information Technology Act weaken the case against pro- IS tweeter Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who was arrested by the city police last year?
  • Mehdi has been booked under Section 66 F of the IT Act, 2000, for cyber terrorism and Section 66 A of the IT Act, 2000, for posting offensive messages, apart from a host of other sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2012.
  • Cyber experts have said that the challenge that the investigators in the case face was to prove criminal intent of striking terror in the minds of the people. If the investigators fail to prove the criminal intent, the only section under which he could be convicted is under Section 66 A of the IT Act, which has now been struck down by the Supreme Court.
  • However, the investigators in the case are confident of securing a conviction in the case under Section 66 F for cyber terrorism.

Sources: The Hindu, PIB, BS.

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