Almost everyone uses the internet every day. Millions of people are tweeting, texting, liking, sharing, posting. Internet freedom affects every individual who has access to it, more so in today's environment. That's why freedom on the internet is so important. It is the one medium that is accessible and used by so many people. It makes an exchange of ideas, opinions and healthy dialogue possible, cutting across religions, castes, countries and even languages.
Section 66A of the Indian Information and Technology Act, 2008, essentially had the power to criminalise any content that was uploaded on to the internet. It could have been in an email, a WhatsApp message, a tweet, a blog post, anything. The words used to describe a crime -- "grossly offensive", "of menacing character", "annoying" -- were so vague and subjective that Section 66A was never used, but always misused. There was something fundamentally wrong with having someone arrested, for up to three years, because someone didn't like or was annoyed by what they had posted. It directly affected the individual.
The right to free speech and expression is guaranteed in the Indian Constitution, and has today become part of our identity. A country as diverse as India can remain secular and democratic only if our fundamental rights are protected and exercised. It is only when there is a difference in opinion that we perceive the need for free speech. The right to free speech includes the right to dissent, to differ from the minority, and this is what needs to be protected.
The arrests of two girls in Maharashtra, in 2012, shocked me so deeply that I felt a need to do something, to speak out for the injustice that had been committed. More arrests ensued that year -- the professor in West Bengal and the businessman in Puducherry. Even during the pendency of the petition, arrests continued to take place - such as the school student in Uttar Pradesh -- right up to a few weeks before the judgement was delivered. There were hundreds of arrests under Section 66A.
" The words used to describe a crime -- "grossly offensive", "of menacing character", "annoying" -- were so vague and subjective that Section 66A was never used, but always misused. "
Looking at some of the posts that led to the arrests, one can see how Section 66A was misused. People were arrested for satirical cartoons, liking and sharing posts on Facebook.
The judgment pronounced by Justice Chelameswar and Justice Nariman struck down Section 66A and held it to be entirely unconstitutional on the grounds that it was violative of our right to free speech and expression. It is historic, I feel, because freedom of speech on the internet is, today, very important. It is the one platform that is used by the masses. The Justices opined that the vagueness of Section 66A was something that couldn't be read down and couldn't be allowed to stand. Section 66A was a blanket provision that criminalised the content put up on the internet, not an act. The mere posting of anything on the internet could potentially land you in jail. Governments will come and go but laws will remain. A bad law that so grossly violates our rights could not be allowed to remain.
The Indian Penal Code as well as the Information and Technology Act have provisions that deal with crimes committed on the internet, such as hate speech, defamation, phishing, pornography, etc. I admit that with the advent of the internet, a whole new class of crimes has been invented, but the Legislature needs to address those individually. Section 66A was intended to prevent spam but all it ended up doing was harming Indian society.
I'm sure someone out there won't like this article, or will ﬁnd it annoying, but it doesn't give them the right to have me arrested. I have a right to voice my opinion, and that is why I challenged Section 66A. People have the right to speak up, without fear.
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