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Shreya Singhal v/s Union Of India: Upholding Free Speech in the Digital Age

Shreya Singhal vs UOI is one of the high-profile digital rights cases in which the supreme court invalidated section 66A of the IT act in its entirety in order to protect the freedom of speech under 19 A of the constitution and also laid down a narrow interpretation for the protection of intermediaries under section 79 of IT act. The court specified that intermediaries shall remove and takedown unlawful content through the court order or notice by the appropriate government.

In the year 2021, "The Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) requested States and Union Territories (UTs) to direct all police stations under their jurisdiction not to register cases under the repealed Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. It also asked the States and UTs to sensitize law enforcement agencies for the compliance of the order issued by the Supreme Court on 24.03.2015," a statement issued by the MHA said.[1] It comes out as a surprise that section 66 A was scrapped six years, and people were booked for the same offense. Section 66 A made a punishable offense for any person to send 'grossly offensive' or 'menacing' information by means of a computer resource or communication device.

According to recent reports, the government has submitted a proposal for the "criminalization of offensive messages", which is similar to language of the Section 66A. India's made its submissions on 13 categories of offenses, including damage to computer systems, cyber terrorism, and child pornography. The Indian proposal lists 'Sending offensive messages through communication devices etc.' in Section 4(d). It then defined criminality in three ways. One is offensive information, and that which is "menacing in character."[2] It has turned out to be a rising concern, primarily because it could, directly and indirectly, impact individual rights.

Title of the case: Shreya Singhal vs Union of India
Citation: AIR 2015 SC 1523
Court:- Supreme Court of India
Bench:- J. Chelameswar, Rohinton Fali Nariman
Petitioner: Shreya Singhal
Respondent: Union of India

Case Summary
The police arrested two girls-Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan who posted derogatory and objectionable comments on Facebook showing displeasure on the shutting down of the city because of the death of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackery's death. The police made the arrests and arrested them under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000. Later, the women were released and the criminal case was dismissed but it turned out to be a public question and resulted in widespread public protest as people felt that by invoking section 66a the police misused their power and violated the freedom of speech and expression.

The petitioner filed a writ petition in the public interest under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, seeking the Supreme Court of India to declare Sections 66A, 69A and 79 of the IT Act ultra-vires to the Constitution of India.

The main issue was whether Section 66A of ITA violated the right to freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. The petitioners argued that the causing of annoyance, inconvenience, and so forth are not covered under the reasonable restrictions as expressed under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution.

It was argued Section 66 A was vague in nature and opened doors for different interpretations according to the law enforcement authorities and there was a absence of limitation for this law. Section 66A violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution since there is no "intelligible differentia" as to why just means of communication are emphasized. This results in self-discrimination, which is a violation of Article 14, 21 of the Constitution.

The respondent contended that the probability of abuse and powers cannot be the basis to declare a law ultra vires. They argued that the broad terminologies are being used just so that individuals are protected from a wide range of mediums. So the law should not be declared illegal on the basis of ambiguity. It was also argued that the function of legislation is to make laws known the best for the public and the duty of the judiciary is to interfere when there is a violation of part iii of the constitution.

As a result, the court ruled that 66A violates the right to freedom of speech and expression and is not protected by the grounds of reasonable limits set forth in Article 19 (2). The court also ruled that information barring public access under Section 69A of the IT Act is constitutionally permissible.

According to me, the main problem with section 66 A was that the terminologies that were used were very loose in nature that allowed whimsical interpretations of the said provision. Apart from that the offenses in this section are already covered in IPC 1806 and the provisions in it are good enough to deal with such types of crimes suggested in the IT act(Section 295 A, 499 and 500).

In the case of Arun Ghosh vs. State of Bengal[3], it was held that there is a need to ask a question that whether it leads to disturbance of the current of life of the community so as to amount to a disturbance of the public order or does it affect merely an individual leaving the tranquility of the society undisturbed?

This question has to be faced in every case on facts. The terms "grossly offensive" and "menacing"were not clear enough as the view point of a person may be favorable for one community and not for another. Khushboo v. Kanniamal & Anr[4], the Court stated, in paragraph 45 that the importance of freedom of speech and expression though not absolute was necessary as we need to tolerate unpopular views. This right requires the free flow of opinions and ideas essential to sustain the collective life of the citizenry. While an informed citizenry is a pre-condition for meaningful governance, the culture of open dialogue is generally of great societal importance.

The supreme court questioned the constitutionality of the law and called the censorship law passed by the parliament as illegitimate and protected the freedom of speech against arbitrary restrictions . Freedom of speech is an important part of democracy as held in Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras[5], freedom of speech lay at the foundation of all democratic organizations.

In recent times the crimes in the cyber space has increased drastically because of the global platform that internet provides us. The Supreme court by this judgement also safeguarded the intermediaries and the contents produced by them . It promoted lucidity among the people in the digital realm .

In a country like India where the population is around 138 crore, there are supposed to be different opinion of related to political, religious or social aspect of the society, one cannot stop anyone from having their own point of view and it will be unjust if one the basic goal of democracy i.e. freedom of speech and expression is with held. So, by abolishing section 66 A of the IT act was an accurate decision which added immense significance in protecting online free speech.

  1. Indian Express article: Explained: The Shreya Singhal case that struck down Section 66A of IT Act - 7408366
  2. National Herald India article: Reports of Modi govt resurrecting Section 66A of IT Act through UN convention route alarming
  3. 1998 SCC OnLine Mad 335
  4. (2010) 5 SCC 600
  5. 1950 S.C.R. 594 at 602

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