by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 01, 2015 02:11 AM
Last Tuesday, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo walked into Prime Minister Narendra Modi's office. India's most compulsive and most-followed tweeter, Modi, as Gujarat chief minister, had protested when the Manmohan Singh government blocked the micro-blogging site of a few journalists. Modi had blacked out his own Twitter profile and tweeted: “May God give good sense to everyone.”

The article by Soni Mishra was published in the Week on March 28, 2015. T. Vishnu Vardhan gave his inputs.

Today, with 11 million followers on Twitter, and 27.6 million likes on Facebook, Modi rules the virtual world and India. He received Costolo warmly and told him how Twitter could help his Clean India, girl child and yoga campaigns. Impressed, Costolo told Modi how Indian youth were innovating on Twitter.

But, the greatest and the most fundamental boost for all social media in India was being effected a few minutes drive away from the PMO. Ironically, in the Supreme Court of India, Modi's lawyers were defending a law made by the United Progressive Alliance government—section 66A of the Information Technology Act, which curbed free speech on social media.

Anything posted on the internet can go viral worldwide and reach millions in no time, argued Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta. While the traditional media is ruled by licences and checks, social media has nothing, he said. Finally, Mehta made an impassioned plea that the government meant well. Section 66A will be administered reasonably and will not be misused, he assured the court.

It seemed he, and the government, had forgotten an old saying: if there is a bad law, someone will use it. Luckily for India, and its liberal democracy, the judges saw a bad law and struck it down. “If section 66A is otherwise invalid, it cannot be saved by an assurance from the learned additional solicitor general,” said the bench comprising Justice Rohinton Nariman and Justice J. Chelameswar.

The fact is that 66A was knee-jerk legislation. Almost as thoughtless and compulsive as a netizen's derisive tweet. On December 22, 2008, the penultimate day of the winter session, the UPA government had got seven bills passed in seven minutes in the Lok Sabha; the opposition BJP had played along.

One of the bills was to amend the IT Act. It went to the Rajya Sabha the next day, when members were hurrying to catch their trains and flights home for the year-end vacation. They just okayed the bill and hurried home.

The argument then was that there was no need to discuss the bill as it had been examined by a standing committee of Parliament. Indeed, it had been. But, the committee, headed by Nikhil Kumar of the Congress, had met only for 23 hours and five minutes. Nine of its 31 members had not attended a single meeting. Ravi Shankar Prasad, the current Union minister for IT, was one among the 31.

Apparently, everyone wanted the bill, so did not bother to apply their minds. Only a CPI(M) member, A. Vijayaraghavan, had a few dissenting suggestions to the committee report. No one else bothered to mull over a law that was “unconstitutional, vague” and which would have a “chilling effect” on free speech.

Once the law was made, it was constable raj across India. Shaheen Dhada from Palghar simply commented on Facebook about a Shiv Sena bandh on the death of Bal Thackeray. Her friend Rinu Srinivasan liked it. The two teenagers were bundled into a police station. Rinu still remembers with a chill how “a mob of about 200 people gathered outside the police station that day.” This was when the Congress was ruling Maharashtra.

Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was picked up by the police in Trinamool Congress-ruled West Bengal in April 2012, for posting a cartoon ridiculing Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. “I was thrashed several times in police custody,” said the professor, who got relief from the West Bengal Human Rights Commission.

Vickey Khan, 22, was arrested in Rampur, UP, for a Facebook post on Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan. Rampur is, of course, Khan's pocket borough. The Uttar Pradesh Police, controlled by the Samajwadi Party government, also arrested dalit writer Kanwal Bharti from Rampur for criticising the UP government's suspension of IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal in 2013.

At least 30 people in AIADMK-ruled Chennai have been booked under 66A; four of them this year. Ravi Srinivasan, general secretary of the Aam Aadmi Party in Puducherry, was picked up in October 2012 for his tweets on Karti Chidambaram, son of then Union home minister P. Chidambaram. “He was not even in India when I tweeted,” said Ravi. “He sent the complaint by fax from abroad and everything happened [fast] as Puducherry is a Union Territory and can be controlled by the home ministry.”

Whistleblower A. Shankar of Chennai was pulled up by the Madras High Court for the content on his blog, Savukku. The Orissa Police, controlled by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government, took Facebook to court in 2011 asking who created a Facebook page in the name of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. It is another thing that the page had no content.

Indeed, there had been stray political voices opposing the law. In Parliament, the CPI(M)'s P. Rajeeve, the BJD's Jay Panda and independent MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar pushed several times for scrapping 66A. Panda moved a private members bill, and Rajeeve moved a resolution. “I only wish we in Parliament had heeded the people's voice and repealed it, instead of yet again letting the judiciary do our work for us,” Panda said after the law was scrapped.

Finally, it was left to a young law student, Shreya Singhal, to move the Supreme Court on behalf of the Palghar girls. Singhal pointed out that several provisions in 66A violated fundamental rights guaranteed by article 19(1)(a)—the right to freedom of speech and expression. Several more cases followed and, finally, the court heard them together.

Indeed, Justices Nariman and Chelameswar have been extremely restrained in their comments. But, the fact that Parliament had not applied its mind comes through in the judgment.

The court “had raised serious concerns with the manner in which section 66A of the IT Act has been drafted and implemented across the country,” pointed out Supreme Court lawyer Shivshankar Panicker. Added Kiran Shanmugam, a cyber forensic expert and CEO of ECD Global Bengaluru: “The law lacked foresight in estimating the magnitude of the way the electronic media would grow.”

Apparently the government, too, knew it was defending the indefensible, and tried to win the case highlighting the benign nature of the democratic state. But, the court was not impressed. “Governments may come and governments may go, but section 66A goes on forever,” the judges noted. “An assurance from the present government, even if carried out faithfully, would not bind any successor government.”

Clearly, Mehta was defending the indefensible, a law that, the court found, would have a “chilling effect on free speech”. Moreover, as the judges found out, the new law did not provide even the safeguards that the older Criminal Procedure Code had provided. “Safeguards that are to be found in sections 95 and 96 of the CrPC are also absent when it comes to section 66A,” the judges said. For example, according to the CrPC, a book or document that contained objectionable matter could be seized by the police, but it also allowed the publisher to move court. The new law did not provide even such a cushion.

All the same, the court was careful and did not overturn the entire law. It scrapped section 66A, and section 118(D) of the Kerala Police Act, but upheld section 69A and section 79 of the IT Act, which too had been questioned by the litigants (see box on page 45).

The judgment has set the cyberworld rocking. “I am so happy now, I do not know how to express it,” said Rinu, now an audio-engineering student in Kerala. Shaheen is married and lives in Bengaluru. Vickey Khan is relieved. “Some people had told me that I could be jailed for three years,” he said. But, Azam Khan took it out on the media and said it “favours criminals”.

Karti, who claims to be a votary of free speech, however, wants “some protection” against defamation. “I filed a complaint in an existing provision of law,” he said. “If that provision is not available, then I will have to seek other provisions to safeguard my reputation.”

Mahapatra is still apprehensive. “The government will still try to harass me,” he said. “But I know that in the end I will win.” Shankar of Chennai called it “a huge relief for people like me, who are active on social media.” Ravi Srinivasan, who locked horns with Karti, said he felt “relieved and happy”.

The hard rap on the knuckles for their legislative laxity has sobered the political class. The Congress, the progenitor of 66A, admitted that the vagueness of the law was its undoing. “If in a particular area, the local constabulary took action to stifle dissent, it was never the purpose of the act,” said Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi. The Modi government officially welcomed the judgment, and its spokespersons are blaming the UPA for the law.

Apparently, the scrapped law was made after a series of grossly offensive posts appeared on the social media five years ago. “If such content is not blocked online, it would immediately lead to riots,” said a law ministry official, who said the posts had been shown to the court, too. He said the government would take some time to draft a new law.

But, is a new law required? Opinion is still divided. What if someone is defamed on the net? “There are defamation laws which can deal with these,” said T. Vishnuvardhan, programme director, Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru. “Also, the IT Act has various provisions. If somebody misuses your picture on social media, you can report it to the website immediately. The website is liable to take action on it within 36 hours.”

Smarika Kumar of Bengaluru-based Alternative Law Forum said the scrapping of 66A does not mean one can post anything online. “The Supreme Court has said that speech can be censored when it falls under the restrictions provided under article 19(2) of the Constitution,” she said. “But, if you prevent speech on any other ground, it is going to be unconstitutional.”

But, even critics of 66A think a replacement law is needed. Said Rajeev Chandrasekhar: “The government needs to act quickly and create a much more contemporaneous Act, via multi-stakeholder consultations, general consensus and collaboration, so that there is less ambiguity and freedom of expression is preserved.”

Senior Supreme Court advocate Pravin H. Parekh said, “As the cyberworld is growing day by day and there is increase in the number of social media users, we do require a proper mechanism which can regulate the expression of views on the internet.”

The government is putting forth the argument of national security. “If the security establishment says the present act is not sufficient, we will look into it. The government will consider it, but only with adequate safeguards,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad.

That will call for a legislative process undertaken in a cool and calm house, and not hurried through when the members are ready to hurry home.

Sound judgment

Thumbs down
The Supreme Court set aside section 66A of the IT act, which says any person who sends offensive, menacing or false information to cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, or uses email to trouble its recipient or deceive him/her about the origin of such messages, can be punished with a jail term up to three years and a fine.

The court also struck down section 118(d) of the Kerala Police Act, which says any person who makes indecent comments by calls, mails, messages or any such means causing grave violation of public order or danger can be punished with imprisonment up to three years or a fine not exceeding Rs10,000, or  both.

Thumbs up
The Supreme Court upheld section 69A of the IT act, which allows the government to block the public's access to information in national interest and penalise intermediaries [telecom or internet service providers and web hosting services] who fail to comply with the government's directives.

Section 79 of the IT Act, which deals with intermediaries' exemption from liability in certain cases, too, was upheld.

With R. Prasanan, Mini P. Thoma, Ajay Uprety, Lakshmi Subramanian, Rabi Banerjee and Sharmista Chaudhury