Friday, March 27, 2015

Quashing of draconian provision under Indian IT Act

Section 66A of the Indian Information Technology Act, 2000 prescribes imprisonment for a term up to  three years including fine for a person who sends by means of a computer any information that is grossly offensive, cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity or hatred. In recent past few persons who had posted comments against some politicians or just liked such posts were charged under the controversial section. These provisions were challenged before the Supreme Court of India by way of Public Interest Litigations, which has disposed of the matter on 24th March, 2015 holding the Section as unconstitutional in its entirety and struck it down.

Article 19(1) of the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right to all the citizens. As such, the Section 66A of IT Act was an aberration, which has now been held as arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invading the right of free speech and upsetting the balance between such right and the reasonable restrictions that may be imposed on such right. The Court held that three concepts fundamental in understanding the reach of this right were discussion, advocacy and incitement. Discussion, or even advocacy, of a particular cause, no matter how unpopular it was, was at the heart of the right to free speech and it was only when such discussion or advocacy reached the level of incitement that it could be curbed on the ground of causing public disorder.

The Court also noted that mere causing of annoyance, inconvenience, danger, etc., or being grossly offensive or having a menacing character are not offences under the Indian Penal Code and these terms were left open-ended, undefined and vague in Section 66A of Act. Further, the Court held that the ordinary people as well the law administrators should be able to understand what conduct is prohibited and what is permitted.

The Court however, turned down the plea to strike down Sections 69A and 79 of the IT Act, which deal with the procedure and safeguards for blocking certain websites and exemption from liability of intermediaries in certain cases respectively as it noted that the provisions had necessary safeguards as blocking was to be done on a written order, recording the reasons, by the Central Government on the restrictions mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Constitution and  provided for hearings before the Committees.

Quashing the draconian Section is a step in the right direction and it would lead to free and open expression and exchange of the ideas on internet.

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