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Balancing Free Speech and Internet Regulation: Online Expression in India

We are living in the era of the internet which creates a lot of opportunities for human beings and allows them to share their opinion online about anything. We see people commenting their opinion on political matters, fashion, music, movies, etc on a regular basis. We live in a democratic country where we have freedom of speech because of which we can state our opinion freely without any fear. It helps in the discovery of truth and also strengthens the individual to take part in the decision-making of the government.

Freedom of speech is the backbone of a free society. In today's world, we can express what we are feeling about the government or anything that's happening in the country which influenced the political world greatly. the Internet as compared to other mediums of communication gives an individual a platform to share his view without paying much.

Posts on social media can reach millions of people so that's why there must be reasonable restrictions on the internet and freedom of speech because many people use the platform to spread hate, misinformation, and indecent content. Freedom of speech is our fundamental right but we should not cross the line of morality while exercising this right and absolute individual rights cannot be guaranteed in any modern state because absolute freedom can be injurious to society as a whole.

Freedom Of Speech In The Indian Constitution

Article 19 of the Indian constitution explain the freedom of speech and expression given to the citizen of India however they are not absolute. As stated in A.K Gopalan v. state of madras, AIR 1950 "man as a rational being desires to do many things, but in the civil society, his desires have to be controlled, regulated and reconciled with the exercise of similar desire by another individual´┐Ż so that's why there are some reasonable restrictions on this right. The supreme court has laid down the following guidelines to check if the restriction is reasonable or not
  • Only the court can judge the reasonableness of restriction, not the legislature.
  • The restriction should not be arbitrary.
  • There is no exact standard or pattern of reasonableness that can be laid down.
  • Restriction must be reasonable from a substantive as well as a procedural standpoint.
  • Reasonableness must be by an objective standard not by a subjective standard.
Grounds for restriction

Grounds on which freedom of speech and expression according to Clause (2) of Article 19 of the Indian constitution can be restricted:

  • Integrity or sovereignty of India.
  • Security of the state.
  • Friendly relationship with a foreign state.
  • Public order.
  • Decency and morality.
  • Contempt of court.
  • Defamation.
  • Incitement of an offence.
Just copy and paste this code into an HTML file or an HTML editor, and it will display the list with bullet points for each item. There are no hyperlinks in this code, so the items will be displayed as plain text.

Offensive Comments on the internet

In the Shreya Singhal vs Union of India AIR 2015 SC 1523 case, the supreme court quashed section 66A of the information technology act which makes an offensive comment on the internet punishable with jail. This section was challenged on the ground that it violates Article 19(1)(a) and 14 of the Indian constitution. This section empowered police to arrest any person who makes comments that are offensive or menacing or for the purposes of causing annoyance, inconvenience, obstruction, danger, hatred, injury, etc.

The court observed that this section does not aim at a defamatory statement because for defamatory there must be an injury to a person's reputation and an offensive comment can be made without any injury to reputation. The court also said that section 66a has no proximate connection with incitement to commit an offence and the court declared this section unconstitutional.

Government control over internet service

Internet suspension
We have seen the government suspending internet service in different parts of India, especially in the union territory. The reason can be the security of the state or public order or any other reason that can create nuisance among the public. The objective of internet suspension is to maintain law and order in the state.

Information received or stored - section 69 of the information technology act 2000 grants power to the government to issue directions to monitor or intercept or decrypt any information stored or received in any computer resource and section 69a of the IT act grants power to the government to issue direction for blocking or restricting to the public access for any information through any computer. These powers can be use in the interest of sovereignty or integrity of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order, or for preventing incitement of any cognizable offence.

New rules issued by the government under IT Act
Last year government issued some new rules and guidelines under the information technology act which give the central government power to regulate online platforms like WhatsApp, Netflix, amazon prime, digital news media, etc. now the government has the power to control the content on these platforms. The OTT platforms and digital media also have to set up a three-tier grievance redressal mechanism.
  • The media house and OTT platforms have to appoint a grievance officer.
  • Secondly, they have to set up a self-regulating body which should be approved by the government.
  • Thirdly, they have to set up an Inter-Departmental Committee. This committee consists of representatives from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Defence, and such other Ministries and Organisations

These rules have been criticized and challenged in the Indian courts because it gives a wide range of power to the hand of the executive. Even The UN body also slammed the Indian government over these new rules. According to them these rules violates freedom of speech and expression. Apart from this, one of the new rules empowers the central government to direct the intermediary to reveal the originator of a message which violates the right to privacy of the user. These rules can put activists and journalists on social media under the threat of state oppression and backlash.

In a big democratic country like India freedom of expressing your thoughts and opinions is very important and plays a significant role in the development of the nation. People should be able to express their opinion fearlessly. But we should be careful while exercising our rights. Think before sharing something on internet as our rights are not absolute , your content should not be offensive or indecent or in any way harm the security and integrity of our country.

  • Do Not hyperlink: Information technology act, 2000
  • Constitutional law of India, Dr J.N. Pandey 58th edition
Written By: Shruti Gaur, Ideal Institute Of Management And Technology And School Of Law

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