No more 66A!

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court has struck down Section 66A. Today was a great day for freedom of speech on the Internet! When Section 66A was in operation, if you made a statement that led to offence, you could be prosecuted. We are an offence-friendly nation, judging by media reports in the last year. It was a year of book-bans, website blocking and takedown requests. Facebook’s Transparency Report showed that next to the US, India made the most requests for information about user accounts. A complaint under Section 66A would be a ground for such requests.

Section 66A hung like a sword in the middle: Shaheen Dhada was arrested in Maharashtra for observing that Bal Thackeray’s funeral shut down the city, Devu Chodankar in Goa and Syed Waqar in Karnataka were arrested for making posts about Narendra Modi, and a Puducherry man was arrested for criticizing P. Chidambaram’s son. The law was vague and so widely worded that it was prone to misuse, and was in fact being misused.

Today, the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A in its judgment on a set of petitions heard together last year and earlier this year. Stating that the law is vague, the bench comprising Chelameshwar and Nariman, JJ. held that while restrictions on free speech are constitutional insofar as they are in line with Article 19(2) of the Constitution. Section 66A, they held, does not meet this test: The central protection of free speech is the freedom to make statements that “offend, shock or disturb”, and Section 66A is an unconstitutional curtailment of these freedoms. To cross the threshold of constitutional limitation, the impugned speech must be of such a nature that it incites violence or is an exhortation to violence. Section 66A, by being extremely vague and broad, does not meet this threshold. These are, of course, drawn from news reports of the judgment; the judgment is not available yet.

Reports also say that Section 79(3)(b) has been read down. Previously, any private individual or entity, and the government and its departments could request intermediaries to take down a website, without a court order. If the intermediaries did not comply, they would lose immunity under Section 79. The Supreme Court judgment states that both in Rule 3(4) of the Intermediaries Guidelines and in Section 79(3)(b), the "actual knowledge of the court order or government notification" is necessary before website takedowns can be effected. In effect, this mean that intermediaries need not act upon private notices under Section 79, while they can act upon them if they choose. This stops intermediaries from standing judge over what constitutes an unlawful act. If they choose not to take down content after receiving a private notice, they will not lose immunity under Section 79.

Section 69A, the website blocking procedure, has been left intact by the Court, despite infirmities such as a lack of judicial review and non-transparent operation. More updates when the judgment is made available.

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